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The Taylor Review: what does it mean for women?

The eagerly awaited report of the Taylor review of modern working practices was published last week, proudly declaring that “many of this review’s recommendations on quality work will directly benefit women”. However, a close read of this report reveals a staggering lack of gender analysis. This complacency, and the assumption that gender equality is implicit, sees women repeatedly left behind by policy making, and despite its assertions the Taylor review is no different. The report runs to 116 pages, is rather verbose, and includes extremely long and unclear recommendations. We’ve written this extended post as a handy guide to the review’s recommendations and themes, and what they mean for women and work.

Missed opportunity

The lack of gender analysis means this review has missed many opportunities. The report assumes the gender neutrality of its central focus, self-employment and temporary work – including agency work and Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs) – and completely fails to acknowledge the barriers faced by women in accessing work on a level playing field with men. There is much importance placed on the ability of people to “choose” work that “suits their individual lifestyles and preferences”, which sounds suspiciously like the age-old adage that women “choose” to work in low-paid jobs.

In talking up the gig economy and self-employment as a path to work-life balance and greater fulfilment it is assuming all people are time-rich and have no other responsibilities that will get in the way of starting a business. The reality is low-paid women will be the least likely to benefit; there is no evidence to show the gig economy or self-employment is enabling women to earn more and lift themselves out of poverty.

Perhaps the most problematic starting position taken, however, is the framing of women as “atypical” workers. This is a huge missed opportunity to look behind women’s working patterns, ask why they are different, and to shape the recommendations to ensure women’s labour market inequality is not further entrenched. From the outset it is clear this report sees men as the default position, and women as “other”.

There are seven recommendations all of which have particular implications for women, but women are invisible throughout.

1. Good work for all

This recommendation suggests a national strategy to provide good work for all "for which government needs to be held accountable", and seeks to define what “good work” is using the principles of the QuInnE model of job quality, which looks at indicators of quality work including wages; employment quality; education and training; and, work life balance.

The gendered aspects of these factors is however completely ignored: a job could fit the “good work” requirement of having good development opportunities and progression pathways, but a lack of transparency in how these opportunities are accessed, and the time when development is scheduled, often sees women lose out.

The report also states that “quality work takes different forms for different people at different stages in their lives – we know, for example, returning new mothers tend to “trade” work below their capability level for flexibility.” This is a dangerous assumption to begin from: that it’s absolutely fine to expect women to work below their skill level in return for flexibility. From this standpoint, gender inequality is inbuilt, and the review’s aim of “good work” will not extend to women.

This recommendation also touches on the UK’s weak productivity growth, and ties this to improving the work of those on low pay. It does not ask what work is low paid, who does it, and why (answers: ‘women’s work’, women, and, because it’s done by women). We have long known the links between occupational segregation and low productivity. In failing to recognise this the review misses yet another opportunity.

2. Worker status

The report suggests people who work for platform-based companies, such as Deliveroo and Uber, be classed as “dependent contractors” to better reflect the employment relationship. The standpoint of this recommendation retains an overtly positive view of working in the gig economy, and in self-employment, and does not acknowledge the extent of the difficulties faced by many people in these forms of employment.

The rise in women’s self-employment has coincided with a rise in low-paid self-employment. There is a high number of women in very low paying occupations, with elementary cleaning occupations the most frequent occupation for self-employed women. A lack of quality part-time and flexible work also sees parents and carers, most often women, forced into agency/casual work, ZHCs or self-employment because they need flexibility and cannot find it elsewhere in the labour market. A significant proportion of the increase in women’s self-employment is because they’ve been forced out of the labour market by discrimination and inequality. Changing their employment status will do little for these women.

3. Employment rights

The report seeks to ensure individuals know and can exercise their rights at work; however agency workers and those on ZHCs are not just unclear on their rights, but afraid to assert them. Raising awareness of rights does nothing to address this, and the report offers no means by which workers will be supported to access justice. Employment law is not enforced by the UK Government: there is no body charged with this task. Justice therefore relies on individuals pursuing their employers through the tribunal courts. There is an acknowledgement that employment tribunal fees are a “significant barrier” to access to justice, but also that the UK Government is unlikely to remove them.

On pregnancy and maternity rights the report recommends that the Government consolidates legislation underpinning these rights in one place (it currently sits in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010), and work with ACAS to “update and promote guidance, targeting the sectors, occupations and types of employers where research suggests there are particular issues”. This has already been done by the EHRC, and by our own Think Business, Think Equality project; furthermore EHRC research didn’t find any sector-specific problems in its analysis, but rather a labour market-wide problem. Since the introduction in 2013 of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, the number of sex discrimination cases has dropped by 76% and pregnancy-related cases fell by 50%. Bringing legislation together in one place will not change the underlying employer attitudes which allow pregnancy and maternity discrimination to continue, or improve access to justice.

4. Good governance

The review has taken a strongly anti-regulation stance, stating that the best way to achieve “good work” is “not national regulation but responsible corporate governance”. This does not align with our experience of action on gender inequality. UK Government’s own research found that employers said only a legal requirement would make them take action to advance gender equality at work. Although “the vast majority of employers understand the value of good employment practice” this does not mean they are delivering it.

We know voluntary measures do not work. The Government’s own Think, Act, Report initiative to encourage private sector employers to publish their gender pay gaps led to just four employers publishing. Although the Davies Review was initially lauded as a success in increasing women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards to 25%, women’s representation on FTSE 350 boards has stalled at 16%, with the number of boards which has no women represented increasing.

Scottish Government’s voluntary initiative, the Scottish Business Pledge has seen very poor progress on companies pledging to take action on gender equality, with only 33 per cent of companies currently signed up to this element, the lowest take-up of all the Pledge components. Furthermore, progress has slowed since the first set of figures were published, and 37 per cent of companies had signed up to this element.

5. Development and training

This recommendation seeks to ensure that individuals are able to develop their skills through "formal and informal learning" as well as "on the job and off the job activities”, and to have these skills recognised. The report does not describe any meaningful way in which this will be achieved. Part-time, low-paid women are the group of workers least likely to be offered training and development opportunities in the workplace, but they are also the most likely to be over-qualified for their job. The skills associated with women’s work are not seen as transferable or valuable, and the skills gained through unpaid care work are entirely invisible. Unless the undervaluation of women’s work, a key cause of occupational segregation, addressed in work emanating from this review we will see women’s inequality further entrenched.

This theme also touches on the impact of increased automation on the future workforce, calling on employers to “think hard about how they are designing jobs that will complement increased automation” and on schools, colleges and universities “to prepare young people for an increasingly diverse career, in roles that do not yet exist.” Research has shown that although job losses arising from increased automation are likely to affect women and men in similar numbers, the jobs that are created will be in STEM fields, and therefore will be male-dominated.

6. Health and wellbeing

This recommendation calls on the Government to “take a proactive approach to workplace health”, and notes that “the shape and content of work and individual health and well-being are strongly related”, but offers little detail as to how this will be achieved in practice. The remit of workplace health is said to include the physical work environment, mental wellbeing at work, fairness, justice, participation, and trust. Women are more exposed to repetitive and monotonous work and to stressful conditions, young women are more likely to be assaulted at work than men and women are more likely than men to experience back strain, skin diseases, headaches and eyestrain. Emotional labour forms a key component of many female-dominated jobs, such as those in the service and care sectors.

The review also fails to acknowledge the impact on wellbeing of having your work valued and being fairly paid.

7. Pay progression

The final recommendation calls on the Government to do more to ensure that people – particularly in low paid sectors – are not stuck at the national living wage minimum (as opposed to the real living wage), but can progress in their current and future work. However, the report makes no meaningful suggestions for achieving this.

This recommendation also focuses on allowing people to “remain and progress in the labour market as their personal circumstances change”, in particular through flexible working practices. The report is optimistic on the extent and availability of flexible working in the UK: “92% of employers say that they have at least one form of flexible working practice available in their workplace; 60% of employees have said they have done some form of flexible working in the last 12 months.” This is not an accurate reflection of the availability of genuinely flexible, or quality flexible, work. Only 20.2% of jobs are advertised with flexible options, and this falls to 8.7% for jobs paid over £20k.

 

It is positive to see an increased focus on the quality of work through this review, and through Scottish Government’s Fair Work Convention and Oxfam Scotland’s Decent Work campaign. It is however difficult to see how “good work for all” will be achieved through this report’s recommendations, which lack clarity and specificity and will be difficult for employers to operationalise.

This report has had to deal with a very broad remit in a short space of time, and by its own admission has failed to cover important aspects of “good work”. These constraints do not excuse the complete lack of consideration of gender. This review has failed to consider the different ways in which women and men work, and its recommendations are unlikely to help tackle women’s labour market inequality. “Good work” still seems like a long way off for women.

You can read more about what we think the Taylor review should have considered here.

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