Challenging poverty means challenging women’s inequality at work

One of the key messages of this year’s Challenge Poverty Week is that poverty affects us all. At Close the Gap, we know that it affects women. We know this because the evidence shows that poverty in Scotland is gendered.

By this we mean that women are more likely to be in poverty than men; women are more likely to experience in-work poverty; women find it harder to escape poverty and are more likely to experience persistent poverty than men.

We also know that women’s experience of poverty is directly linked to women’s experience of the labour market.

What’s more, in line with the multiple labour market barriers experienced by different groups of women, the risk of poverty is even greater for black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and refugee and asylum-seeking women.

So why are women more likely to experience poverty than their male counterparts?

That women have profoundly different experiences of the labour market than men is a pivotal factor in women’s experience of poverty.

Women comprise the majority of low paid workers, and work that is seen as “women’s work”, such as cleaning, care and retail, is systematically undervalued in the labour market. Women are more likely than men to have caring responsibilities and therefore face the additional pressure of finding work that allows them to balance earning with caring. This sees women further concentrated into low paid and insecure work, as most part-time work is found in the lowest paid occupations and sectors.

Women’s employment is becoming increasingly precarious with women accounting for two-thirds of workers earning less than the living wage and 55% of workers on zero-hour contracts are women. The gender pay gap also means women earn on average 15% less than men, so it’s hardly surprising that employment is a key factor the high rates of women’s poverty.

This labour market inequality is compounded by gender-blind policy decisions. For example, social security is a major policy area that impacts women’s wellbeing and income. Women are twice as dependant on social security and over the decade of austerity from 2010 to 2020, 86% of net ‘savings’ raised through cuts to social security will come from women’s income.

We know that women are more likely to be in poverty and we know why, so the time has come for solutions.

Challenge Poverty Week asserts that poverty in Scotland is solvable and we agree. However, we can only challenge women’s poverty if we actively boost women’s incomes and challenge women’s inequality in the labour market.

Gender-blind anti-poverty measures may actually serve to entrench women’s inequality. Different groups need different measures. Anti-poverty measures must explicitly consider and integrate women’s needs. However, we also need an intersectional approach that recognises that women are not a homogenous group and so incorporates the specific needs of disabled women, refugee women and BME women.

There are a number of solutions to women’s poverty including addressing gendered undervaluation and increasing wages in low-paid sectors, creating a living wage for carers to which all carers are entitled, topping-up child benefit by £5 per week and, as the Scottish Government have recently committed to, a strategic action plan on the gender pay gap.

Implementing these solutions won’t only benefit women. Where women’s disposable income is reduced, spending on children decreases and the links between child poverty and women’s poverty are widely recognised. As such, solving women’s poverty will go a long way to solving child poverty too.

Challenging poverty is a gender equality issue. If poverty is gendered, our solutions to poverty must be too.

For more detail, take a look at our new ‘Women, Work and Poverty’ factsheet.

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