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The other end of the ladder

MargaretProsser2014.jpgMargaret Prosser on refocusing government training initiatives towards women in lower paid jobs

Peers today will take part in a timely debate titled ‘the contribution of women to the economic life in the United Kingdom and worldwide’ – the last two words being added late on after concerns raised by Labour that focus on the home front alone hardly meets the spirit of Saturday’s International Women’s Day.

Having involved myself down the years in the question of women’s opportunities within the world of work I can’t honestly say I feel that positive. There is still too large a gap between men’s and women’s earnings, reckoned currently to be 19.7%. And if you compare the earnings of women working part time with full-time male workers the gap increases to over 40%. This is because the vast majority of part time jobs (almost all done by women) are at the bottom end of the pay scale. Taken together with the fact that most of these jobs have few, if any, prospects of enabling progression then the picture becomes one of many, many women being stuck with poor wages and no prospects.

The usual path for women in what might be called ‘ordinary’ jobs is to be doing ok after school or college and then have a child. Childcare can usually be afforded or managed with one child but when the next one comes along, the cost becomes prohibitive. At that stage many women decide to cut their losses, give up full time employment and move to the attractive flexibility of the retail trades. The only way supermarkets stay open all hours is by providing a myriad of shift opportunities which in turn enable women to fix hours and childcare with family, friends, or some time in a nursery.

Whilst unsatisfactory in so many ways it does at least enable these women to have some money of their own. Even the seemingly happiest of relationships can mask the shift in power which takes place when a woman has no independent financial means. 

In this scenario, everyone is a loser. The woman herself has lost earning power and the family is therefore worse off financially. The employer has lost a trained worker and has to start all over again, to recruit and train somebody else. And the economy has lost an amount of spending power.

Back in 2006 when the report of the Women and Work Commission was published, Towards a Fairer Future, economists at the Department of Trade of Industry estimated that the Chancellor was losing out on £15-£23bn each year. But there are things that can be done.

We should have a programme with employers helping them identify good quality part time opportunities in their companies. The organisation ‘Women Like Us’ has done much good work in this regard and government should play its part. And it should also look at reinstating the Women and Work Sector Pathways Initiative, which Gordon Brown kickstarted when Chancellor to help fund re-skilling and re-training initiatives for women.

The latter ran for five years under the umbrella of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and was delivered via the Sector Skills Councils. During that time over 25,000 women received training in, among other areas, bus driving, textile and fashion, food technology, and engineering management. It was also recognised as a great success, drawing in more funding from employers than from government, and getting a glowing testimony on three separate occasions by researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University. Nevertheless, the Coalition closed the scheme down. 

It is unlikely that women will get such a look in again on money for training. The current government has concentrated on the situation for those higher up the employment ladder. While important, thousands more women in day to day employment need a political initiative to rescue them from low rent employment and to help them and their families move on and up. That is where the focus of attention should now lie.

Baroness Margaret Prosser is a backbench Labour Peer

Published 6th March 2014

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