Levelling up and the gender gap

Date Posted: Friday 12th November 2021

Caitlin Webb, Policy & Research Officer at the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CILUP). CILUP was launched in July 2021. Based at the University of West London (UWL) it aims to produce policy relevant research related to place and other dimensions of social inequality. Follow us on Twitter.

Levelling up and the gender gap

Closing the conservative party conference last month, Boris Johnson set out his ambition for ‘uniting and levelling up across the UK.’ He stated that addressing inequalities between and within regions is ‘not just a question of social justice, it is an appalling waste of potential and it is holding this country back.’

It is true that regional inequalities in the UK are significant. For example, in 2018 the South East was 50% more productive than the North East. These inequalities reflect differences in industries, ability to attract high-value businesses and a history of underinvestment among other things. It follows that addressing these inequalities and investing in our less productive areas would help boost our national economy.

However, the government’s focus on inequality between places risks masking other forms of inequality. Inequalities between groups of people, such as those based on race, gender or disability, continue to exist with little focus from the government on addressing them. Similarly to regional inequality, addressing these issues would improve the life chances of many and unlock productive potential across the economy.

Levelling up gender equality

Despite decades of progress securing fairer treatment for women, large inequalities still exist between men and women in the UK. In April 2020, the national median weekly pay for female employees was £543 compared to £619 for men. The employment rate for women was 9% lower than the male employment rate and women were less likely to run a business. These inequalities were exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic when women were more likely than men to experience loss of income, worsening mental health, increases in caring responsibilities and abuse.

Considering this, it is unsurprising that a focus on closing the gender gap could offer our economy a significant boost. Analysis by the McKinsey Institute found that addressing gender inequality in work could add 840,000 more employees to the workforce and an extra £150 billion to our GDP forecasts for 2025.

Addressing gender equality would be good for our national economy however it is not just a national issue. Women’s economic empowerment varies across regions. The North and the Midlands are among the regions with the lowest female employment rates. It is these areas and areas considered to be ‘left behind’ that have the most to gain from gender equality. So, if Boris is serious about solving ‘the national productivity puzzle’, gender equality is surely a good place to start.

What would ‘levelling up’ gender equality look like?

Physical Infrastructure

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda thus far seems to be focused on investing in physical infrastructure in areas that have historically lacked investment. This is important to ensure access to public services, employment opportunities and to restore civic pride in local high streets. Evidence suggests that investment in travel infrastructure may also be good for gender equality. In fact, women are a third more likely to travel by bus than men. Furthermore, the demise of the high street and store closures during COVID-19 disproportionately affected women due to their over representation in the retail industry. Therefore, investment in this area is likely to support women’s employment.

Social Infrastructure

In order to truly tackle inequality, the government must also consider the importance of investing in social infrastructure. For example, any strategy to level up productivity and employment must consider the importance of investing in free, high-quality childcare. Throughout the pandemic, school closures made it difficult for many to keep working, with one third of mothers on a low income reporting that they had nobody to ask for support. This highlights the precarious reality for many parents who are balancing work with the high costs of childcare. Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group suggests that an investment in free childcare would create 1.7 million full-time jobs and increase women’s employment by 6.4%.

Another way to improve women’s productivity is to invest in social care. Women make up around 82% of social care employees. Many of these employees are on 0-hour or insecure work contracts. Greater investment in and regulation of social care would provide the many women employed in this sector the financial security and employment rights they deserve. Furthermore, women make up 72% of those receiving the Carer’s Allowance and provide the majority of unpaid, informal care work. An increase in the provision of state-funded care would reduce the burden experienced by many women, allowing them to enter the work force or increase their working hours. The recent social care reforms will hopefully go some way towards addressing this, however, greater investment is needed in the short-term to support women’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Education & industry

Investing in Net Zero industries appears to be an important factor of Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda. Investment in Net Zero jobs has the potential to regenerate many of the UK’s less productive regions. However, unless careful consideration is given to the gender parity of these new opportunities there is a risk that progress will further exacerbate inequality between men and women. This is because men are more likely to study STEM subjects and go on to be employed in these industries. Findings from the Government’s Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme stress the importance of improving women’s participation in STEM subjects and incentivising companies in this sector to hire more women.

What next?

It is clear that swift and robust action is needed to tackle inequalities in the UK and Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has the potential to go some way towards achieving this. However, the government must broaden their view of who is ‘left behind’. Greater focus on gender equality and an investment in some of the above key areas would go a long way toward improving productivity to unite and level up the country.