There’s no wellbeing without gender equality

Lessons from Wales and Scotland suggest that in our post-COVID future, economic growth does not have to come at the expense of wellbeing. But as we plan how to build back better, how can we centre gender equality in a wellbeing-led recovery?

The system isn’t working. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated a lack of economic resilience in the UK, and turned the spotlight on the deep-rooted inequality that exists across society.

As we emerge from the first phase of this crisis, more and more people are calling for health and wellbeing to be a government priority over economic growth. The Scottish Government has launched a consultation calling to reimagine the economy as greener, fairer, and more inclusive — presenting us with an opportunity to start building an economic model that centres wellbeing and gender equality.

What do we mean by wellbeing economy? A wellbeing economy provides dignity, nature, connection, fairness and participation and starts with the idea that the economy should serve people and communities first and foremost. An economy that delivers good lives for people and does not harm people or the environment.

The good news is, wellbeing and gender equality are not incompatible with economic success. In fact, the opposite is true. A wellbeing, gender-equal approach to the economy can really be transformative.

Greater gender equality can improve women’s access to employment and education opportunities. This in turn can have economic benefits at many levels: individual women, their households, local economies, and via tax revenue. A gender equal economy, therefore, is beneficial across families, communities, and nations.

However, economic growth in its existing model has repeatedly failed to promote gender equality. Worse, it has actively reinforced and recreated inequality. It’s time to change that to an economic model that can and will “level up” everyone in society.

So how do we achieve a wellbeing, gender-equal economy, and what can we learn from the successes and limitations of the work taking place in Scotland and Wales?

Both nations are already exploring and promoting a wellbeing economy, through their membership of the Wellbeing Economy Governments Group and wider civil society activism. “Inclusive growth”, which promotes that economic growth can and should be pursued while reducing income inequality, was adopted by the Scottish Government in 2015.

Heads of both governments have already explored how valuing care — both paid and unpaid — is central to a wellbeing gender-equal economy. Care work is overwhelmingly carried out by women and is a key sector in the economy. And yet, because it is overwhelmingly carried out by women, it is undervalued and has suffered from chronic underinvestment. This lack of investment must be recognised as both a cause and consequence of an unequal society.

 Our organisations, Chwarae Teg and the Scottish Women’s Budget Group, have been calling for this investment in a care-led recovery in Scotland and Wales. Our analysis has been instrumental in informing proposals in the devolved administrations, and builds on their existing commitments to wellbeing economies, inclusive growth, and to embed equalities at the heart of decision making.

The Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy, a four-nation project of which we are both members, has spent the last 18 months gathering evidence on what needs to change – in Scotland and Wales, but also in Northern Ireland and England. Our recommendations, which will be published in full in the autumn, include better pay and working conditions for care workers. For unpaid care work, we need to see recognition of the vast economic contribution unpaid carers provide, and offer them greater support — be they mothers looking after children, daughters looking after parents, or partners looking after a loved one.

Beyond care, the experiences in Wales provide salutary lessons in how to achieve a wellbeing, economy, as well as exposing the limitations in approaches that fail to put gender equality at the centre.

Wellbeing is already taking a leading role in the Welsh Assembly. Their Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act is a world-leading piece of legislation that enshrines the principle of economic, environmental and societal sustainability in law and demands that building a “more equal Wales” is considered in decision-making. The Act builds on a famously strong commitment to equality in Welsh government.

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that there is no wellbeing without gender equality, and achieving gender equality doesn’t happen by accident. Legislators must make a concerted effort to mainstream equality in every decision they take about the wellbeing agenda.

This can be achieved by, for example, ensuring wellbeing indicators include gender equality, and measuring progress in wellbeing with equalities disaggregated data including sex, ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, and disability. The Public Sector Equality Duty can be a powerful platform for enabling and supporting change, rather than being under-utilised and regarded as an administrative burden.

Secondly, we cannot fall into a trap of thinking that a focus on wellbeing should replace a focus on equality. They support one another but they are not the same – not least because economic, cultural and social wellbeing looks different for women and men.

This means actively evaluating who is benefiting from wellbeing policies. If women, black and minority ethnic, LGBTIQ and disabled people are still experiencing inequality at work, are still disproportionately living in poverty, and are still excluded from public spaces, then your wellbeing agenda is not putting equality at its heart and is therefore failing.

The coronavirus crisis has been devastating for families across the Four Nations. But as we emerge from the pain and grief, there is a slither of hope. Scotland’s decision to seize this opportunity to start reimagining the economy, and Wales’ commitment to wellbeing, shows that we don’t have to go back to a business as usual. We can instead build a new, wellbeing gender-equal economy.