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Women are crucial to economic recovery

Authors: The Work Foundation Guest blog by Professor Sylvia Walby

31 May 2011

The deepest recession since the 1930s calls for fresh thinking on how to create the conditions for economic recovery and sustainable growth. What is the future for the UK economy? And could gender play a crucial role in ensuring long-term recovery? These were some of the issues we explored last week ( 25 May 2011) at an event at The Work Foundation.

The shift over past decades to more highly skilled jobs continues; while unskilled jobs are declining, the knowledge economy is more robust. Knowledge-intensive services now account for 42% of UK employment with a further 1% in hi-tech manufacturing and another 4% in the Information and ICT sector.

You could be forgiven for assuming this will benefit women more than men; after all, jobs like HR and PR are staffed mostly by women while traditional manufacturing jobs which employ a majority of men are shrinking. and the skills required by the knowledge economy require more human capital based on education in which young women appear to be doing well, plus social capital like social skills in networking, which have often been thought to favour women. 

However, while everyone is doing better in the knowledge economy men are still doing better than women. The increase in management and professional jobs has benefitted men at least as much as women, so the gender pay gap is narrowing only at a glacial rate.

One of the obstacles to women is occupational segregation, with women concentrated in less well paid areas; 51% of those working in knowledge intensive services are women but only 30% of those in hi-tech manufacturing . Is this a case of man and machine?

Despite initiatives in schools to get more girls into STEM subjects at university, more men than women study physics and engineering degrees and fewer women go into the ICT industry. This career segregation is being eroded, but only slowly.

Women are also disproportionately affected by spending cuts since more women are concentrated in the public sector. Attempts to salvage the car industry were not matched with similar efforts to protect jobs in local government, when a rise in taxation could have safeguarded many more female-dominated jobs. 

We could learn from Norway’s example, where there is a 40% quota for women on the boards of companies which has led to improved company performance. We too could ask for more female representation on financial bodies in the UK, where there were only just over 12% of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies in 2010.

Any future recovery must address these disparities not only for the sake of gender equality but also because the gender pay gap is a gender productivity gap; if labour markets are not working at 100% efficiency by utilising the skills and talents of all their people, then economic output is bound to suffer.

Professor Sylvia Walby OBE holds the UNESCO Chair in Gender Research and is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University.