New report: Findings from the evaluation of Equally Safe at Work in local government, NHS and third sector

At Close the Gap, we’re always keen to understand what works in creating change for women in the workplace. One area where we’ve seen success in our work is Equally Safe at Work, our innovative employer accreditation programme that supports employers in local government, NHS and third sector develop gender- and VAW- sensitive employment practice. The programme was first piloted between 2019 and 2020. Over the past 18 months, we’ve been working with a new cohort of councils and introduced a pilot in the NHS and third sector. As a result of the recent roll out, we’re delighted that 14 new employers have become accredited.

To measure the effectiveness of Equally Safe at Work, developing an evaluation framework was a core element of the work. We collected qualitative and quantitative data throughout the accreditation process which included disseminating employee surveys, holding focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles, and conducting semi-structured interviews with staff leading on Equally Safe at Work in their organisation. Collecting this data is integral for understanding whether changes being made as part of Equally Safe at Work are reaching staff at all levels in the organisation. It also provides Close the Gap, and participating employers, with a greater understanding of the experiences of women working across the public and third sector in Scotland.

Our recently launched Equally Safe at Work evaluation report highlights the positive impact the programme has had on local government employers and also provides details on the effectiveness of the pilot in NHS boards and third sector organisations. The reports includes key findings from the data collected through the programme and celebrates the wide variety of activities and initiatives introduced by employers that will make a real difference for women in their organisation.

Evaluation methodology

While a variety of data was collected throughout the programme, the employee survey and focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles provided helpful insight into women’s experiences of work. The employee survey captures data on access to flexible working, access to learning and development opportunities and barriers to reporting VAW. The survey also asks questions on attitudes towards and behaviours around gender equality and VAW, and staff experiences of VAW. Across the three sectors, 7,575 respondents completed the survey. The data collected in each organisation is shared with employers with recommendations that link to the criteria of the programme. One council lead shared how useful they found this:

The employee survey presented questions to staff for the first time. We will be keeping some of the questions in our employee survey that happens every three years. It will start to give us data about the picture for people and their experiences.”

Another fundamental element of our data collection is conducting focus groups with women working in lower-paid roles. It’s important to hear the voices of these women because they work in jobs which are undervalued in the economy, are among the lowest grades in each organisation, and they report feeling excluded and omitted from discussions happening in their organisation. In total 62 women catering workers, cleaners, care workers, admin, library assistants, and nurses shared their experience of work. The survey and focus group data provides us with a rich picture of women workers’ experiences in Scotland. The focus group data is particularly important as women working in lower-paid roles are routinely ignored by policymakers and employers in action to tackle the gender pay gap.

What the evaluation told us

As a result of the programme, employers across the public and third sector have improved their employment practice to be more gender and VAW sensitive. This was highlighted by a variety of changes made to the workplace which includes:

  • Developing a VAW policy.
  • Developing a sexual harassment policy.
  • Sharing video with all staff of the Chief Executive explaining what occupational segregation is and how it impacts the council.
  • Implementing new systems to collect data on women returning from maternity leave and other returners.
  • Including a question on the availability of flexible working in internal vacancy control forms for recruitment managers.
  • Introducing new systems to collect data on experiences of VAW, including whether victim-survivors were satisfied with how their disclosure was handled.
  • Setting up a staff women’s network to provide insight and consultation on changes happening in the council.
  • Collating and analysing data on flexible working refusals and reasons for refusals and using this to inform practice.
  • Reviewing and updating their equality policy to include information on occupational segregation, VAW, sexism, misogyny, and intersectionality.
  • Reviewing and updating policies on flexible working, recruitment, and organisational change.
  • Third sector organisations analysed and published data for the first time on mean pay gap data, median pay gap data, and occupational segregation.

Challenges and opportunities across sectors

The evaluation identified a number of opportunities and challenges that arose during the accreditation period. The pilot in the NHS and third sector provided valuable learning on implementing Equally Safe at Work in new sectors. Importantly it has continued to be an effective mechanism for supporting employers to change policies and practice. For example, we learned in the previous pilot with councils that organisations were most successful when introducing new policies or practices, rather than updating and reviewing previous work. For the third sector, since many of the activities undertaken during the pilot were new, employers were able to make substantial changes to the workplace in a relatively short period.

Some of the challenges faced by all employers included budget constraints, and issues with recruitment and staffing. This resulted in two organisations withdrawing from the programme due to a lack of staff to drive the work forward. This also meant that those leading work on Equally Safe at Work had conflicting priorities and in some cases, the work was led by a graduate intern. Another contributing factor was the impact of Covid-19. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, VAW and gender equality became deprioritised as many key staff were redeployed into crisis management. As a result, many organisations are catching up on key equalities work from that time, which means that progress on gender equality and preventing VAW has slowed.  

Through the pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations, Equally Safe at Work has been an effectiveness mechanism for facilitating change in different sized and types of organisations across Scotland. The prescriptive nature of the programme provides a clear framework for employers to work through within a specific timeframe. For some employers, this is the first time they have had a focus on progressing work on gender equality and VAW, and they have told us that the programme has created momentum for further change.

“I think development level is a good overall first step in the journey to improving awareness and ensuring positive experiences for staff in the organisation around gender equality and violence against women.”

Third sector lead

“I would definitely recommend the programme. It’s well run. Goals are tough but achievable. Would recommend it to organisations of all size and even if they can’t complete everything, there is so much useful learning.”

NHS lead

“My advice would be to be open. Lots of organisations would want to make it political, gender equality benefits everyone. Do exactly what’s in the manual and to not just tick boxes, to really dive deep into each standard. Don’t do the bare minimum.”

Council lead

The evaluation of the pilot in the NHS and third sector has highlighted key learning that we will be embedding into the programme over the next few months. We will then be inviting new employers to join the programme in Spring 2024. In the meantime, you can read more about Equally Safe at Work on our website,

Congratulations to the newly accredited Equally Safe at Work employers!

Our Equally Safe at Work team has been busy working with a range of employers over the last 18 months to enable them to develop improved gender-sensitive employment practice and prevent violence against women. We’re now delighted to announce that 14 new employers have received accreditation in recognition of the work they’ve delivered to create better workplaces for women workers. These employers include:

Bronze accreditation:

  • Fife Council
  • East Ayrshire Council
  • Inverclyde Council

Development accreditation:

  • West Dunbartonshire Council
  • Highland Council
  • Angus Council
  • Glasgow City Council
  • Perth and Kinross Council
  • NHS Ayrshire and Arran
  • Public Health Scotland
  • Healthcare Improvement Scotland
  • NHS Dumfries and Galloway
  • Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland
  • Voluntary Action North Lanarkshire

We want to congratulate all the employers who have participated in the Equally Safe at Work programme and the great work they have done to progress gender equality and better support victim-survivors in the workplace.

We are pleased to see so many employers achieve accreditation through a difficult period of budget constraints, recruitment challenges, and the ongoing cost of living crisis. Also, for the NHS boards and third-sector organisations, this was the first time we have tested out Equally Safe at Work in new sectors. The pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations provided us with key learning, including how to roll out the programme to different sizes and types of organisations, for example, the differences in working with organisations ranging from 15,000 staff to 7 staff. Overall, the pilot with NHS boards and third sector organisations, and the rollout with councils, has been successful in enabling employers to develop gender and VAW-sensitive employment practices. The evaluation of this work shows the impacts that employers have identified in their own organisations:

“The fact that we have made the change to the gender-based violence policy, and added paid time off for seeking refuge, probably wouldn’t have thought of doing this if not part of the programme. It’s about making women more confident about raising these issues at work, so they know they’re entitled to this. It raises the profile and makes it more acceptable to take up.”

                                                                                                                   - Local government participant

“We introduced collecting data on flexible working refusals. We wouldn’t know before if this had been denied but now reasons for refusal have to go through HR and highlights where this is about safety.”

                                                                                                                   - Local government participant

“Through the programme, we’ve improved our recruitment practices, introduced special leave, made flexible working more accessible. We are doing the work and making progress on equality in our organisation.”

                                                                                                                   - Third sector participant


What's next

We have been collecting qualitative and quantitative data throughout the programme to measure whether the programme has resulted in change. We will be launching the evaluation report with our findings and key considerations for moving forward on the 28th of November. For more details on how to attend, visit the Eventbrite link.

For more information on the Equally Safe at Work programme, you can visit our website

Scotland’s gender pay gap continues to fluctuate as women’s labour market inequalities remain unchallenged.

The gender pay gap shows the difference between women and men’s average hourly earnings. It illustrates the divergent experiences women have in employment, as well as education, training, unpaid domestic labour, and men’s violence. As the key indicator of women’s labour market inequality, gender pay gap data is critical to Close the Gap’s work.

Data relating to the gender pay gap is produced annually in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) by the UK Office for National Statistics. Each year, Close the Gap analyses this data to track and assess how the pay gap is changing over time.

The most recent data indicates that the gender pay gap in Scotland has widened slightly by 0.8 percentage points between 2021 and 2022. This widening means that the gender pay gap in Scotland remains stubbornly in place, currently sitting at 10.9 per cent. Whilst there has been this slight increase in the pay gap from last year’s data, looking at the longer-term trends suggests the pay gap continues to slowly decline. It is likely the increase in last year’s pay gap is related to the labour market disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected women’s employment.

This widening of the pay gap, to 10.9 per cent in 2022 contrasts with a substantial (3 percentage points) decline between 2019 and 2020, where the pay gap declined from 13.3 per cent to 10.4 per cent, and a further marginal decrease to 10.1 per cent in 2021. The pay gap does tend to fluctuate year to year and is affected by economic changes. As this significant decrease is not present in the current data and has instead reversed slightly, it suggests that the changes to the pay gap in the previous two years were the result of Covid-19 job disruption, rather than being because of a reduction in the inequalities women face in the labour market. This widening also reinforces Close the Gap’s view that pay gap data from during the pandemic should be treated with caution.

ASHE data also allows us to analyse the gender pay gap by different occupations, industries, working patterns and age groups, giving a more in-depth look at the pay gap across various dimensions. Close the Gap’s analysis of this data forms the base of our annual gender pay gap statistics paper. The key findings from this year’s analysis include:

  • The combined pay gap (which accounts for all women and men) sits at 10.9 per cent.
  • As of 2022, women working full-time earn 7.9 per cent less than men working full-time, an increase of 1.3 per cent from 2021. Women working part-time earned 26.3 per cent less than men working full-time, which is a marginal decline from the previous year. The part-time pay gap illustrates the systemic undervaluation of “women’s work” which continues to be concentrated in low-paid, part-time jobs.
  • Women make up the majority (73 per cent) of part-time workers, and are three times as likely to work part-time than men (38.3 per cent of women compared to 13.4 per cent of men). Capturing women’s part-time pay in headline pay gap figures is essential as looking at the full-time figures only can mask gendered differences in pay.
  • Women are concentrated in jobs characterised by low pay. At the same time, the highest female earners continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts. Current data shows women in the highest earning percentile earn 17.1 per cent less than men in the same percentile.
  • The most recent data shows a continued trend of women over the age of 22 having lower average hourly earnings than their male counterparts. For 18–21-year-olds, 2022 is the second year in a row where women of this age group have lower hourly earnings than their male counterparts, suggesting the pay gap is widening for this age group.
  • The pay gap for women over the age of 40 continues to be higher than the national average, which partly reflects the ‘motherhood penalty’ and the lower rate of women moving into higher-paid managerial occupations after the age of 39 compared to men.

These findings illustrate the complexities which drive the gender pay gap in Scotland, and that the pay gap varies for different groups of women. Despite more visibility on tackling the pay gap in recent years, the barriers women face in entering, remaining and progressing in employment persist. Significant issues remain around employer complacency and a continued lack of gender mainstreaming in policymaking.

The gender pay gap represents a lifetime of discrimination and inequality for women. The current cost-of-living crisis is compounding women’s experiences, as they are at the sharp end of economic shocks. Research has shown that women are disproportionately affected by the cost-of-living crisis, particularly single mothers, disabled women, older women, and racially-minoritised women. Since women make up the majority of low-paid workers, they are already more likely to be in poverty, so the cost-of-living crisis puts additional financial pressures on them.

Headline gender pay gap data provides key insights into women’s continued inequality in the labour market and provides a better understanding of its causes such as the undervaluation of women’s work, occupational segregation, and women’s low pay. However, it does have its limitations. There remains a significant lack of gender-sensitive, sex-disaggregated data on the labour market, and there is a distinct lack of intersectional data pertaining to the labour market. As such, there are major gaps in Scotland-level data on the pay for racially-minoritised women and disabled women, resulting in less insight into their specific labour market experiences. Without this data, it is more difficult to analyse how the gender pay gap is changing for different groups of women, which compounds the intersecting inequalities that they already experience.

When taking into account the current rate of progress, it will take a significant amount of time for the gender pay gap to close, which further illustrates how far we still have to go to achieve greater equality in earnings. In addition, lower pay gap figures do not mean gender inequality in the labour market is resolved, as low pay gap figures can hide inequalities women continue to face in the labour market, such as occupational segregation.

You can read Close the Gap’s latest gender pay gap statistics paper here.

An inadequate pension system for disabled women

Women have historically been disadvantaged by the pension system in comparison to their male counterparts. Since its inception, it has only placed value on the ‘male working pattern’ of working full-time hours with an uninterrupted working history. However, this is far from the reality of women’s lives, in particular disabled women’s lives.

There’s no recognition of the invaluable contributions made by women to the economy, as the pension system doesn’t consider the high levels of domestic labour and unpaid care, carried out overwhelmingly by women. The current pension system therefore fails to recognise the complex nature of the gender pension gap, the drivers of this, and the impact on disabled women’s lives.

As part of Challenge Poverty Week, it’s an opportune time to think about how a lifetime of gendered inequality in the labour market drives higher levels of female pensioner poverty. This is particularly the case for disabled women who face intersecting inequalities, which means they’re more likely to experience poverty in work and in retirement. This is the second in a series of blogs about the gender pension gap and the differential outcomes for women surrounding inequality and poverty.

The gender pay gap and the long-term cost to women

As our report ‘The Gender Penalty’ details, the drivers of the gender pay gap are complex and interrelated. As the key indicator of gender equality, it represents the divergent experiences of men and women in employment, education, skills acquisition, care, and domestic labour. The structural barriers to women’s equal labour market participation are far-ranging and deep-rooted, such as occupational segregation and the undervaluation of ‘women’s work’, meaning there is no single solution to tackle the gender pay gap and women’s pension inequality.

Our first blog on the gender pension gap, ‘What is the gender pension gap?’ sets out the clear connection between women’s labour market inequality and the gender pension gap. A more nuanced understanding of the drivers of the gender pension gap is needed to understand how this contributes to women’s higher levels of poverty in retirement. There’s a direct link between earning less and saving less that impacts women’s ability to build their pension pot. On average, women have less savings and access to occupational pensions than men. However, due to multiple barriers to participation in the labour market and routes for progression, disabled women and racially minoritised women are more likely to be unemployed, under-employed and experience higher pay gaps. Analysis from TUC reveals that disabled women face the biggest pay gap. The figures show that disabled men are paid £7,144 a year more than disabled women. Research has also shown that the difference in pay between disabled women and non-disabled women varies considerably. This can range from 4.3% to 18.9% depending on the type of impairment.

Disabled women are among the under-pensioned groups who find it more difficult to achieve an adequate income in later life. Racially minoritised women, divorced women, as well as women who have been lone parents at some point in their lives, unpaid carers, and women who are self-employed are also at a greater risk of inequalities associated with lower retirement incomes. The gendered division of care and the likelihood of interrupted working histories, as well as a result of divorce, are major factors in women’s lower lifetime contributions to pensions.

Analysis from Age UK showed that in less than a decade, the proportion of female pensioners in the UK living in poverty had risen by 6%, meaning one woman in every five is now living ‘below the breadline’. This is despite the number of female pensioners falling after the state pension age was increased, which disadvantaged many older women. So, while there are fewer female pensioners, the number of women living in poverty has increased in this time. This signals that the pension system is insufficient as a source of income for women of pensionable age.

Pensions are core to retirement preparation yet most people (58%) are unsure about their likely state pension entitlements and what they will receive. Research from Scottish Widows showed that while both men and women expect to be able to rely on a state pension, there are disparities in their expectations of retirement with 61% of women who have concerns about running out of money in retirement compared to 52% of men.

Research has also found that women who were unaware of the raised state pension age were more likely to experience the news as a shock, exacerbating the negative impact on their mental and physical health with a detrimental impact on women from lower routine and manual social classes in lower quality jobs, leading to worsened health outcomes. This is a particular concern for women, especially disabled women, who are more likely to have inconsistencies in their contribution history, more likely to be low earners, and are unable  or unaware how to effectively plan for their retirement. It is also grossly overlooked that the state pension is the greatest source of income for the majority of pensioners and represents a larger part of women’s retirement income than it does for men across all income groups. Yet, it is one of the least generous across OECD countries. In the absence of other sources of income, which disabled women and other under-pensioned groups are less likely to have, this alone is not enough to provide them with an adequate standard of living in their retirement years. Research from Poverty Alliance shows that older women have raised their concerns around pension adequacy, especially as they approach retirement or are in it.

Cost of living crisis, the lasting impact of Covid-19 & women's economic inactivity

The Covid-19 crisis amplified the gendered division of care, whereby women are still providing the majority of informal care for children, older and disabled people. The pandemic has made it more likely that unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women, will experience damaging effects on their pension contributions as they have found it more challenging to maintain employment.

The realities of living through Covid-19 have been different for men and women, and have presented particular barriers for disabled women’s activity within the labour market. The impact Covid-19 has had on employment and poverty has meant disabled women have often had to choose between the risk of losing their job or returning to the workplace and exposing themselves to the virus. Despite being at high risk, many women reported that they felt vulnerable to losing their job if they were unable to work. Moreover, women already in low-paid jobs, who would otherwise have been able to work from home, were not provided with the appropriate equipment or support. Due to their low-paid jobs, some could not afford broadband and this clearly shows the multiple barriers disabled women were facing in the height of the pandemic. Employment was not a route out of poverty, instead, it acted as a barrier to disabled women, placing them at greater risk of the virus and poverty.

Disabled women are at greater risk of financial insecurity as the extra costs to cover their care needs are much more difficult to manage when their income is modest. On average, women have lower levels of savings and wealth compared to men and before Covid-19, women were more likely to be in debt, with disabled women at greatest risk. Covid-19 and the rising cost of living has made this worse, directly impacting retirement savings.

In attempts to manage daily living costs, almost one in six women (16%) said that they have cut back on their retirement savings to manage the rising prices. This is highly problematic for women, older women, disabled women and others facing multiple forms of discrimination who were already disproportionately affected by the rising costs. While the recurrent crises have caused severe financial hardship for many marginalised groups, older women born in the 1950s and 60s, who have had their state pension eligibility delayed, have faced a unique set of challenges during this time as they are also the age group with the highest redundancy rate due to Covid-19. This cohort of women has faced several barriers in seeking employment at the intersection of sexism and ageism. This results in discriminatory recruitment practice with older women’s skills and experience undervalued. As a result, many older women are being forced to accept jobs that place them in a worsened financial situation and are exposed to living in poverty.

Delaying entitlement to the state pension has been a crude mechanism, which has had a strongly gendered impact on women, negatively affecting many older women and their financial, physical, and mental wellbeing. This policy change fails to account for the gendered differences between men’s and women’s lives, particularly in the unequal distribution of care, and the different experiences of disabled women in engaging with the labour market. For some women, as they near their retirement they find they are simply unable to work longer as part of managing their health and therefore cannot accumulate further retirement income. While there have been studies to point to the advantages of working longer, the benefits are only enjoyed when people feel they are not forced to do so.

What needs to change?

Often, we see the gender pension gap being framed exclusively as a problem that women must solve themselves. However, this is futile if we are to seriously address the long-standing structural inequalities that drive the gender pension gap. Placing the burden and blame on women for an ineffective system is entirely misplaced, and there is far more that the Scottish Government, UK Government, and employers should be doing to mitigate the impact on women, and in particular, disabled women.

While there are a range of factors which contribute to the high levels of inequality in retirement, and women’s pensioner poverty, tackling women’s low pay, which includes addressing the undervaluation of the types of work women do, is critical and cannot be overlooked. This persistent undervaluation of women’s contribution to the economy places them at greater risk of poverty, both in their working careers and in retirement. As such, employers need to better support disabled women in the workplace as they face deeper inequalities and are more likely to be living in poverty. This includes providing flexible working, reasonable adjustments, and going beyond to make sure their practice is not discriminatory.

Tackling the gender pension gap and women’s pensioner poverty requires measures that span childcare, women’s working lives, and across pension policy. This includes but is not limited to the UK Government raising more awareness and communicating any changes made to people’s pensions and addressing the gaps in knowledge surrounding people’s entitlements. Moreover, the UK Government should reduce the age requirement from 22 to 18 and remove the lower earnings limit to automatic pension enrolment. This is a key step in tackling poverty in retirement, as it excludes the lowest earners, who are typically women.

Close the Gap has called to replace the shared parental leave scheme with a fairer and less complex system of parental leave. The take-up has remained desperately low and excludes many who are on very low pay and those in insecure work, who again are typically women and particularly disabled women. Employers also have a role to play, as well as the UK Government, to help shift societal attitudes and to make it financially viable for men to take shared parental leave.

As our joint paper ‘A childcare system for all’ highlights, the provision of affordable and accessible childcare is a necessity to women’s gender equality. The Scottish Government should go further to address the pay gap and pension inequality with effective measures around the accessibility and affordability of childcare provision. The high cost of childcare can be prohibitive, and this is a significant financial barrier to women’s wider equality.

Without a gendered response to the current impact of the crises, and understanding the drivers of the gender pension gap, we face the risk of exacerbating women’s pre-existing inequalities within the labour market. This is especially true for disabled women who are subject to multiple layers of discrimination. The pension system is essentially built to produce unequal outcomes for women and men, and this needs to change. Without action, many women, especially disabled women, will continue to face a lifetime of inequality and poverty.

Call for participants: focus groups for disabled women and women with a long-term health condition to share their experiences of employment in Scotland.

There is a significant lack of Scotland-specific data in relation to disabled women’s experiences of employment and engaging with the labour market. Particularly around their access to development, their workplace experiences and disabled women’s pay gaps. These data gaps contribute to policy developments and decisions around the labour market that do not consider the inequalities disabled women face.

Close the Gap is conducting research into disabled women’s experiences of employment in Scotland and is inviting disabled women and women with long-term health conditions to join our focus groups (one online, one in-person) to share their experiences.

The focus of the discussion will be on:

  • workplace cultures including areas like access to reasonable adjustments, and workplace discrimination;
  • skills including barriers to progression and access to training and development;
  • and other workplace priorities identified by participants priority issues around employment.

The findings from these focus groups will be used to inform the next stages of the research project.

The focus groups are for self-identifying women who are disabled or have a long-term health condition. Participants can attend either online or in person:

Register here for Thursday 21st September, between 18:30 and 20:00, online.

Register here for Saturday 23rd September, between 16:00 and 17:30, at the CitizenM Hotel, 60 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, G2 3BW.

Participants will receive a £30 shopping voucher in return for their time. Childcare and travel costs will also be reimbursed, where applicable.

We endeavour to meet all access requirements for participants. Further information on this is available in the registration form.