The Living Wage can loosen the grip of women’s poverty

Living Wage Week is an opportunity to recognise the importance of the living wage in lifting women out of poverty and enabling fair work for women.

Women continue to account for the majority of low-paid workers in Scotland and research from Living Wage Scotland has shown that women in part-time work stand to benefit the most from Living Wage accreditation.

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. The rise in women’s self-employment has also coincided with a rise in low-paid self-employment.

Women’s experience of the labour market is ultimately linked to women’s experience of poverty. In Scotland, women are more likely to be in poverty than men; are more likely to experience in-work poverty; find it harder to escape poverty and are more likely to experience persistent poverty than men. 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, disabled and refugee and asylum-seeking women.

The Scottish Government have recognised the inextricable links between gender and poverty, and women’s poverty and child poverty in a number of key policy documents including Scotland's gender pay gap action plan, and the child poverty delivery plan. These plans are clear that tackling the gender pay gap is essential to overcoming women’s higher rates of in-work poverty, and child poverty in Scotland.

It’s vital that the Scottish Government and other policymakers adopt a gendered approach to all labour market policymaking and analysis of low pay in Scotland. At present, this is often not the case with key labour market policies failing to consider women’s different experiences of work, and policy analysis which does not recognise women’s distinct experiences of low-pay and poverty. We also continue to see analysis pertaining to low-paid workers, lone parents and child poverty without any consideration of the gendered causes.

It is also distinctly unsurprising that women make up the majority of workers being paid below the living wage, because women’s preponderance in low-paid work is a major cause of the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap represents a lifetime of inequality for women. Responses to the pay gap often focus on getting more women into senior roles. While vitally important, this ignores the fact that the gender pay gap is also caused by women’s concentration in low-paid, insecure and undervalued work such as care, retail and cleaning.

Work that is seen as “women’s work” is systematically undervalued in the labour market because this work is done by women. Practically, undervaluation means that women will receive lower rewards from investing in education or from their own work experience, and undervaluation thus underpins both occupational segregation and the pay divergence that accompanies it. While the payment of the living wage in these jobs and sectors is an important start, ultimately this has to be accompanied by a more structural response to the continued economic undervaluation of work done by women.

Women are more likely than men to have caring responsibilities and therefore must find work that allows them to balance earning with caring. This sees women concentrated in part-time work. However, most part-time work is found in the lowest paid jobs and part-time jobs are more than three times as likely to pay below the living wage than full-time roles.

Lone parents, 91% of whom are women, may be juggling several low-paid jobs at the same time to earn enough to make ends meet. Almost half (48%) of single-parent households are living in poverty, compared to a quarter (24%) of couple households.

The payment of the Living Wage in female-dominated sectors such as care, catering and retail is an important mechanism to lift women and their families out of poverty. Every Child, Every Chance has a focus on engaging with particular sectors such as tourism and hospitality where women’s low pay is a concern. The Plan outlines how these sectors, as key growth sectors of the Scottish economy, needs to play its full role in ending child poverty.

We also need a step change in employer responses to part-time and flexible working. Too often, there’s a cultural presumption against part-time working in senior grades, and in male-dominated jobs and sectors. This prevents women from progressing, and sustains their concentration in the lowest paid jobs in the labour market. Presently, only 12% of jobs paying £20,000 or more a year are advertised on a flexible basis, and research by Close the Gap has shown that the right to request regulations, extended to all employees in 2014, have not resulted in the normalisation of flexible working, as was envisaged.

Employers that pay their staff the real Living Wage, and enable them to work flexibly at all levels, will be able to benefit from the well-evidenced gains of gender equality at work. This will also enable us to challenge women’s poverty, meet Scotland’s targets on child poverty and make real progress towards closing the gender pay gap in Scotland.

While women continue to represent the majority of workers being paid below the living wage, we will be unable to realise the ambition of enabling access to fair work for women in Scotland.

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