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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