Chalk + Talk: How 70 million professional women are transforming our societies

We regularly debate the state of equality of men and women in work. Usually, at least a reference is made to who is making it to the top – whether that be the top of FTSE 100 companies, or to the top echelons of politics. But, if you stop at look at data on men and women across the whole of society, a very different picture emerges.

It is a story of remarkable progress for some, but very little for the very many. As part of our ESRC-sponsored Chalk + Talk series, Professor Alison Wolf presented her recent work on the new pattern of inequality that is emerging.

Female labour market participation – especially among those who are married – has soared over the past century, as educational opportunities have expanded. In many professions, the gender gap has narrowed hugely over the past 30-40 years. Jobs such as scientists, lawyers and judges have seen women go from making up less than 10% of those employed to around 40%. The top 15% of jobs in OECD countries are shared out equally among men and women. For women in these jobs, gender equality has (almost) arrived.

But that’s the story of the 15%. For the remaining 85%, life is somewhat different. Women still dominate some of the least well-paid occupations, such as care and cleaning. Often, they work part-time, have less education, and have demanding care responsibilities – not just childcare, but care for relatives that are elderly or have long-term health problems.

Inequality has grown among women. Exacerbating this is the fact that the well-educated tend to partner with each other, widening household income inequality too. Of course, the tremendous progress in providing women with wider opportunities to achieve fulfilling careers cannot be understated. But the analysis of what is happening to women across society means that we can no longer think of many problems as being solely about gender. Effectively, gender equality has arrived for some, but not for all, and in many ways, gender inequality is being replaced by income inequality.

This has several policy implications:

  • Childcare: childcare is a top concern among politicians, and there is perhaps a one-size-fits-all assumption that childcare is a universal need that should be in some way met or at least supported by the state. But women across the income spectrum have very different circumstances and needs. Formal childcare is predominantly used by those in professional occupations.
  • Adult care: actually, for many women in lower income groups, responsibility for caring for another adult in the family, perhaps who is elderly or has health problems may well be more significant than childcare. And this is an area where relatively little state support is provided, and there is significant under-resourcing.
  • Flexibility and tailoring: Across the board, we need to recognise that what works for some groups of women will not work for others. Policies that provide flexibility – personal health budgets are an example – are likely to be more effective when the experience of different groups is so diverse.

Alongside this blog, you can catch up on today’s Chalk + Talk on Twitter using #SMFchalktalk or by downloading Professor Wolf’s slide pack.

Chalk + Talk is the SMF’s popular lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the ESRC. Chalk + Talk brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.

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