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What will the end of furlough mean for women’s employment?

Despite the latest data showing that one-quarter of employers across the UK were still using the scheme, the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme is scheduled to finish at the end of September.

Furlough has been a welcome, if imperfect, intervention by the UK Government. The scheme has supressed unemployment, with cumulative data showing that over 910,000 jobs in Scotland have been furloughed over the course of the pandemic. Given women’s concentration in service sectors such as retail and hospitality, the scheme has enabled women who work in these sectors to protect some of their income during prolonged periods of sector shutdowns.

The decision to end the scheme in September has been viewed by some as an arbitrary decision, not tied to any particular milestone in the pandemic or the state of the economy. Indeed, the trajectory of the pandemic still remains somewhat unclear. In Scotland, positive cases and hospitalisations have been on the rise again and it is likely that there may be further surges in the winter months. In the absence of furlough to protect jobs during any future lockdowns or sector shutdowns, there are concerns about unemployment in the coming months.

Data on the Job Retention Scheme shows that 116,500 employees remain on furlough in Scotland. While women accounted for majority of those on furlough in Scotland from July 2020 to April 2021, the latest data shows that women account for 49% of those still on furlough. Previous analysis by Close the Gap found that younger women were more likely to be furloughed than their male counterparts. This remains true, with women making up 55% of furloughed staff among those aged under 18. However, the highest take-up rates of furlough now reside among the over 65 age group, with 8% take-up among women in this age group and 9% among men.

Declining rates of furlough among women is primarily driven by decreases in the number of jobs on furlough in sectors such as accommodation and food services. However, while furlough rates are declining in these sectors, over one-third (35%) of furloughed jobs in Scotland reside in female-dominated retail and hospitality. This creates a potentially negative outlook for women’s employment in these sectors.

The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, published earlier this month, notes that the full impact of COVID-19 on employment will only become clear with the end of the Job Retention Scheme. Certainly, a number of factors makes it difficult to determine the impact the end of furlough will have on unemployment in Scotland:

Due to the lag in labour market data, the impact of the end of the scheme won’t be visible in labour market data until December. For now, what’s certain is a lack of certainty around the impacts the end of furlough will have on unemployment in Scotland.

The Scottish Government expects disproportionately negative employment outcomes for women, as well as young people, Black and minority ethnic (BME) people, lone parents and disabled people. This is particularly significant, as these groups already face structural barriers to employment and, as a result of their intersecting identities, BME women and disabled women will face particular barriers to good quality employment. Consequently, Scottish Government have concluded that activity to drive up good, secure and well-paid employment opportunities for those at greatest risk of poverty will have to be prioritised in the aftermath of the pandemic. To date, however, this rhetoric has not yet translated to effective action on women’s in-work poverty and job insecurity in Scotland.

This focus on job quality, as well as job numbers, is extremely welcome as women’s employment is increasingly precarious, and concentrated in low-paid work.

Research from the IFS found that the aforementioned surge in job vacancies has been driven entirely by low-paying occupations, in which new job openings are around 20% higher than pre-pandemic. As the IFS also concluded that competition for new job opportunities is higher for women than it is for men, a focus on good quality employment will be critical in preventing women being funnelled into low-paid employment.

Unemployment rates will undoubtedly be an important indicator of economic recovery. However, if we are to meet the ambition of building a fairer economy in the aftermath of the pandemic, we need to move beyond a narrow focus on employment rates alone and ensure that fair work for women is core to economic recovery. Following the 2008 financial crisis, employment rates masked a rise in low paid work, slow wage growth, as well as increasing precarity and job insecurity in the labour market. This also reduced Scotland’s gender pay gap, not because there was an increase in women’s pay, but rather there was a downward pressure on men’s pay.

Many of the sectors which account for a large proportion of female job losses over the crisis are notoriously low paid and characterised by job insecurity. For example, four in ten of those working in female-dominated retail and wholesale are paid less than the real Living Wage. In hospitality, also a majority female workforce, 80% of workers reported that they were already struggling with their finances before going into lockdown. A return to the status quo will merely cement women’s labour market inequality and in-work poverty.

While furlough has gone some way to protect employment and earnings for some women, key features of the Job Retention Scheme actually increased the likelihood of women leaving work in order to care, particularly at the start of the crisis. As a result of the failure to embed gender analysis in policymaking, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee concluded that the design of furlough “overlooked - and in some respects continues to overlook - the specific and well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women.”

As furlough comes to an end and the impacts of the pandemic on employment become clear, we cannot afford for women’s labour market equality to continue to be an afterthought in policymaking. It’s time to put gender equality at the heart of fair work and to prioritise policies and interventions which tackle occupational segregation, women’s low pay and the continued undervaluation of women’s work.

Scottish Government’s forthcoming National Strategy on Economic Transformation is an opportunity to prioritise action on the structural issues which underpin women’s economic inequality. Close the Gap has advocated that a fairer and greener economy has to be an economy that also works for women.

What’s Violence Against Women got to do with women’s labour market inequality? Close the Gap’s new animation explains.

Close the Gap has developed a short animation for Equally Safe at Work that explains the link between violence against women (VAW) and women’s labour market inequality. Tackling women’s inequality in the workplace is a necessary step in preventing VAW, so employers therefore have a key role to play.

Having an understanding of the causal story is a critical component of Equally Safe at Work. Employers need to understand the problem, and their role in designing and delivering solutions, if they are to develop gender-sensitive employment practice.

The evaluation of the pilot of Equally Safe at Work identified that there is a need for capacity building among employers and staff on the link between VAW, gender inequality, and women’s labour market inequality. This animation conveys a complex problem in a simple and accessible way. It will be used as a learning resource for employers engaged with Equally Safe at Work to build knowledge and awareness around VAW and women’s employment.

For more information on Equally Safe at Work, you can visit: https://www.equallysafeatwork.scot/workplace-gender-equality/

We're hiring!

Close the Gap are hiring for three new positions to support the delivery of our Equally Safe at Work employer accreditation programme.

Programme Officer (Equally Safe at Work)

We’re looking for an enthusiastic person to work on the expansion of Equally Safe at Work, Close the Gap’s employer accreditation programme, in Scotland’s local government sector. Committed to women’s labour market equality, you’ll be working closely with Equally Safe at Work colleagues to influence change and supporting councils to develop gender-sensitive employment practice and gain accreditation. You’ll also be developing materials, writing reports, delivering events and building relationships with stakeholders.

Hours: 34 hours per week
Salary: £28,463
Pension: 10% employer contribution
Location: 166 Buchanan Street, Glasgow, G1 2LW (homeworking while Covid-19 restrictions are in place)

Responsible to: Programme Manager

The post is fixed term, funded until 30 September 2023, with potential extension depending on funding.

Close the Gap values diversity in our workforce and encourage applications from all sections of the community. Flexible working options are available for this role. 

Programme Officer (Equally Safe at Work - NHS, third sector and Scottish Government)

We’re looking for an enthusiastic person to work on the pilot of Equally Safe at Work, Close the Gap’s employer accreditation programme, in NHS boards, third sector employers and Scottish Government. Committed to women’s labour market equality, you’ll be working within our small, busy team to influence improved gender-sensitive employment practice, and supporting employers to gain accreditation. You’ll also be designing shared learning opportunities, developing materials, writing reports, delivering events and building relationships with stakeholders.

Hours: 34 hours per week
Salary: £28,463
Pension: 10% employer contribution
Location: 166 Buchanan Street, Glasgow, G1 2LW (homeworking while Covid-19 restrictions are in place)

Responsible to: Programme Manager

The post is fixed term, funded until 30 September 2023.

Close the Gap values diversity in our workforce, and encourage applications from all sections of the community. Flexible working options are available for this role. 

Research and Evaluation Officer

We’re looking for someone with experience of evaluating policy or projects to join our team to support the delivery of Equally Safe at Work, Close the Gap’s employer accreditation programme. Committed to women’s labour market equality, you’ll be working closely with Equally Safe at Work colleagues to evaluate the accreditation programme in local government, NHS boards, third sector employers and Scottish Government. You’ll be developing and implementing an evaluation plan and gathering quantitative and qualitative data from employers and employees. You’ll also be writing research and evaluation reports and developing case studies.

Hours: 34 hours per week
Salary: £28,463
Pension: 10% employer contribution
Location: 166 Buchanan Street, Glasgow, G1 2LW (homeworking while Covid-19 restrictions are in place)

Responsible to: The Executive Director

The post is fixed term, funded until 30 September 2023, with potential extension depending on funding.

Close the Gap values diversity in our workforce and encourages applications from all sections of the community. Flexible working options are available for this role.

Read the job descriptions, person specifications and other application information here.

How to apply

Electronic applications must be submitted using our online application form which you can find on our website at closethegap.org.uk/jobs. If you are unable to use an online application process please contact us at info@closethegap.org.uk

The deadline for applications is Sunday 10 October 2021.

Making sure a green economy also works for women

Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19, green jobs and green skills were a key aspect of Scottish Government’s efforts to transition to a net zero economy. The ongoing crisis has brought further weight to these considerations, with focus turning to the importance of building a greener and fairer economy in the aftermath of the pandemic.

To-date, however, there has been little consideration of the potential impact of the growth in green jobs on women’s labour market equality in a “just transition”. This is despite evidence that “men’s jobs” will disproportionately benefit from further investment in green jobs and sectors.


While there is not a single agreed definition of green jobs, the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland’s Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan identified five broad areas of economic activity that are core to the net zero economy. The sectors are heavily male-dominated such as energy, transport, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. Analysis by Close the Gap found that women account for less than one-quarter (22%) of people employed in these priority green sectors in Scotland. More specifically, men account for 84% of those employed in construction, and 77% of those employed in transport and storage in the Scottish labour market.

It’s therefore clear why increased focus and investment in these male-dominated sectors will disbenefit women, worsen women’s unemployment, widen the gender pay gap, and also risks exacerbating women’s poverty.

These priority sectors highlight that green infrastructure continues to be understood by the Scottish Government in traditional terms, focused on physical infrastructure such as transport and housing. Caring jobs are low carbon jobs and data analysed by the Women’s Budget Group suggests that investment in the care industry is 30% less polluting than the equivalent investment in construction, and would also produce 2.7 times as many jobs. As yet, however, little consideration has been afforded to the importance and opportunities of implementing large scale investment in all forms of green social infrastructure, including childcare and social care.

To avoid entrenching gender inequality, a drive for green jobs must be accompanied by measures to address occupational segregation, including the development of upskilling and reskilling opportunities which address the gendered barriers to training and development.This is not only vital from a gender perspective, but from an economic perspective too. As occupational segregation is correlated with sector skills shortages, ensuring that women are able to access green jobs is necessary to meet increasing demand for labour and tackling skills gaps.

Women’s access to green sectors is particularly important as women’s employment has been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Women are more likely to work in a shutdown sector, such as hospitality and retail; women’s poverty rates, and subsequently child poverty rates, will rise as a result of low-paid women being particularly affected by job disruption; and women are more likely to lose their job over the course of the recession. Occupational segregation is key driver of this, with job disruption disproportionately impacting women because men and women tend to work in different jobs and sectors. Investment in male-dominated sectors at a time when women are more likely to have lost their job, without focused activity to disrupt occupational segregation, will thus widen the gender pay gap and women’s inequality in the labour market.

The Scottish Government’s plans to realign investment in education and training towards green jobs should be coupled by action to ensure that skills policy is informed by evidence on women’s access to skills acquisition and in-work training and development. The Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan contains actions on tackling occupational segregation as a core aim of skills and training programmes, promoting inclusive workplace practices, including flexible working, in target sectors and developing upskilling and reskilling measures informed by barriers faced by under-represented groups, including women. It’s vital that these actions are prioritised in implementation. Currently, it remains unclear how these actions have been progressed.

The Social Renewal Advisory Board also recommended that the Scottish Government designate a proportion of the Green Jobs Fund specifically for enabling people who are under-represented in these sectors to train and access green jobs. The Board also call for targets and monitoring of how the fund is used, including through the gathering of intersectional data on participants. These actions are critical to ensuring that skills and training programmes designed to assist in the drive for green jobs do not cement women’s inequality in the labour market. Scottish Government is yet to respond in full to the Board’s recommendations.

The Scottish Government and its delivery agencies also have to put fair work for women at the heart of plans to grow green sectors, with a focus on demand-side interventions that tackle employment practice which sustains women’s under-representation in these sectors. This means addressing a lack of quality part-time and flexible working; ensuring fair and transparent recruitment and development practices; and tackling male-oriented workplace cultures.

A focus on a green economic recovery through the creation and development of green jobs will not necessarily mean a fairer economy for women. In order to transform the economy so that is both greener and fairer, tackling occupational segregation and women’s broader equality at work must be core to economic recovery policymaking. We cannot have a “just transition” without enabling women and men to equally benefit from this labour market shift. This requires concentrated action to tackle the structural barriers women face in entering green jobs.

How will political parties promote gender equality in the labour market? What we learnt from the women’s election hustings

Coverage of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are now only a few weeks away, have been very much focused on COVID-19 and Scotland’s economic recovery. So far, equalities considerations have been notable by their absence. Within mainstream public dialogue and formal televised debates, there has been very little, if any, focus being afforded to promoting gender equality.

This is particularly troubling because the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequality and it’s consequently more critical than ever that political parties are developing policies that challenge women’s social, economic and labour market inequality. Economic recovery can’t merely facilitate a return to the status quo, cementing women’s inequality in the process. Instead, parties must focus on building a gendered economic recovery.

At the women’s hustings, held on the 1st of April, we gained insight into how Scotland’s political parties were considering gender equality. The hustings, organised by Engender, offered an important opportunity to hear from party representatives on their priorities on a range of topics including unpaid care, sexual harassment, and women’s employment. This blog focuses on party commitments relating to women’s employment and economic equality.

So, what did we learn?

Consensus on prioritising gender equality could bring transformational change for women

The hustings highlighted some welcome consensus across the political parties on key policies that would advance gender equality in Scotland. There was also a sense that all parties were willing to accept that equality had to be a key priority for the next parliament. There was significant cross-over on party priorities, particularly when it came to action to tackle violence against women and improving women’s representation in Parliament. The passing of Monica Lennon MSP’s bill on free period products was highlighted as an example of cross-party working that reaped rewards. If the political parties can bring that consensus into the next parliament, there’s potential for transformational change for women in Scotland.

The pandemic has brought the undervaluation of women’s work into sharp focus

Women account for 79% of key workers in Scotland, and women’s work that was previously branded ‘low-skilled’ is now being viewed as ‘essential’ during the pandemic. The concept of undervaluation underpins gendered experiences of low pay, occupational segregation and the gender pay gap. As highlighted in Close the Gap’s manifesto, action to address the undervaluation of “women’s work” must be core to labour market and economic recovery policymaking in response to COVID-19.

The importance of addressing the economic undervaluation of women’s work, with a particular focus on women’s work in social care, was a key topic for discussion. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, noted that it is imperative to better value the work that women do in the economy. Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Green Party, stated that the Greens will prioritise ensuring women’s work is valued, recognised, and rewarded. In discussing undervaluation, Jackie Baillie, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, also noted her hope that the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee’s recommendation that care be identified as a key growth sector, made in their 2017 report into the gender pay gap, will be brought forward in the next parliament. This policy is also reflected in Close the Gap’s manifesto, and such an approach would enable a move towards focusing on the provision of childcare and social care as infrastructure.

Discussion on the undervaluation of women’s work is often missing from policy debates, including those on the gender pay gap, but the pandemic has brought the low pay associated with women’s work into sharp focus. In the next parliament, strong action is required to address this undervaluation.

Reform of the social care sector is likely to be a key priority in the next parliament

It’s clear that the reform of social care, including addressing low pay in the sector, is going to be a key priority in the next Parliament. Women account for 85% of the social care workforce, and it’s vital that reform of social care puts women’s equality at the heart. There were some positive soundings on this. Jackie Baillie noted Scottish Labour’s proposal, brought forward during the Scottish Budget process, to raise social care wages to £15 per hour. Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, highlighted the high turnover of staff in the sector and the importance of addressing pay concerns to secure a decent wage for care workers. Nicola Sturgeon highlighted the SNP’s plans for a National Care Service with a national wage to better value the work that women do. We hope this consensus can lead to some long-overdue changes in the value and pay afforded to social care work in Scotland.

Support for Equal Pay Reviews can help to address unequal pay in Scotland’s public bodies and local government

There is widespread complacency around unequal pay in Scotland, and equal pay is increasingly being erased from analysis of the gender pay gap. It was welcome, therefore, to see the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour highlighting the importance of equal pay reviews across all levels of Government. Willie Rennie highlighted the importance of pay transparency, and Jackie Baillie noted Close the Gap and Engender’s work on the Scottish National Investment Bank. The Bank is required to develop and review a gender equality strategy, and conduct equal pay reviews. We agree that there is no reason why this model couldn’t be replicated within other public bodies in Scotland. Scottish Labour announced a manifesto commitment around equal pay reviews, and a one-off pot of funding to ensure historic claims are settled. We’ll keep an eye on Labour’s manifesto for more detail.

Attention is on occupational segregation, but this remains heavily focused on getting more women into STEM-related roles

Occupational segregation is a key driver of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 job disruption on women’s employment, with women more likely to work in shut-down sectors such as retail and hospitality. This puts women at greater risk of redundancy in the longer-term, as these sectors are less likely to bounce back at the end of pandemic. Jackie Baillie highlighted the importance of adopting policies to tackle occupational segregation in the education and skills pipeline, and employment.

Three was also focused discussion on the need to address the under-representation of women in STEM. Rachael Hamilton, Spokesperson on Social Security and Older People for the Scottish Conservatives, highlighted her party’s policy to have a dedicated STEM teacher in every primary school and action to address women’s under-representation in STEM-related college courses. Nicola Sturgeon pledged continued backing for programmes designed to support women into sectors where they are traditionally under-represented. Willie Rennie reiterated his party’s commitment to tackling gender imbalances in Modern Apprenticeships.

This action is very welcome, particularly given the expected growth in these sectors as a result of automation and technological change. However, the bulk of current work to tackle occupational segregation comprises supply-side programmes which are heavily focused on getting more girls and women into STEM. There has been no work to address the inherent undervaluation of female-dominated work, such as care, which is a necessary step in attracting more men into the sector. Overall, activity has been piecemeal, and has not brought about meaningful change. This is why Close the Gap are calling for a commitment to establish an occupational segregation commission which focuses on adopting a strategic approach to addressing occupational segregation across the Scottish labour market as a whole.

A welcome focus on the structural issues which sustain women’s labour market inequality

There were important discussions across all of the parties on some of the causes of women’s labour market inequality, and the exacerbation of that inequality as a result of the pandemic. There was welcome focus on the structural issues which sustain that inequality. The Scottish Greens highlighted the need to redistribute unpaid care, and cited the need for greater investment in public transport to promote gender equality because women are more likely to be reliant on public transport. The Scottish Conservatives noted their plans to put women at the heart of the young person’s guarantee and the Kickstart scheme, while also looking to address equality issues within Modern Apprenticeships.

Rachael Hamilton also placed emphasis on the impact of increasing unpaid caring roles during the pandemic, which has led to some women having to give up work in order to care. The Scottish Conservatives, the SNP and the Scottish Liberal Democrats all highlighted plans to develop wraparound childcare, with Willie Rennie noting the need for a further expansion in funded childcare, including for two-year-olds. The Liberal Democrats also highlighted the importance of more support for unpaid carers across Scotland, including additional support and respite hours.

The First Minister stated that the SNP will be outlining proposals to encourage greater transparency on the gender pay gap from businesses, the mainstreaming of gender budgeting so that all budgetary decisions take account of women and improved support for unpaid carers in Scotland. While stating that it might not be a ‘sexy issue’, Scottish Labour reinforced the importance of gender-disaggregated and intersectional data to tackling women’s inequality, noting that if you can measure the problem, you are more likely to fix it. Scottish Labour welcomed a focus on gender budgeting, but noted this should be across all of Scotland’s public bodies.

Putting gender equality at the heart of the election

The hustings offered a welcome opportunity to put gender equality at the heart of the election campaign. However, Emma Ritch, Director of Engender, gave a timely reminder to parties that the women’s hustings shouldn’t be viewed as the only opportunity to discuss women’s equality. The majority of party manifestos have now been published, and we’ll be looking to these documents to find out more about how each party plans to address gender inequality in Scotland.

Transformational change is needed to realise fair work for women, and it is time for meaningful, and substantive action on the causes of the gender pay gap in Scotland. The 2021 Scottish Parliament elections and the next parliament present an opportunity for political parties to show leadership on gender equality and take the bold action that is needed.

You can watch the hustings here, and read Close the Gap’s manifesto for the elections here.

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