The RSA Discusses The Gender Gap

I was contacted last month by the Director of the RSA in Australia and New Zealand to ask if I was willing to take part in an online panel discussion on gender equality. The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is a membership organisation of around 29,000 Fellows worldwide. The mission of the RSA is to, ‘...enrich society through ideas and action’, and states that ‘... all human beings have creative capacities that, when understood and supported, can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment.’ The Fellows share ideas, carry out research and build networks and opportunities for people to collaborate globally.

Alongside me, those taking part in the online panel event included, Jennifer Curtin, Professor of Politics and Policy and Director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. She has published widely on gender, politics and leadership in Australia and New Zealand; Trish Nicklin, Deputy Chairperson for the Australian Transformation and Turnaround Association. She is a writer, researcher and presenter; and Bonnie Chiu, Founder and CEO of Lensational, empowering marginalised women in Asia and Africa through photography training and platforms to sell their work.

Key topics for consideration by the panel included – the gender pay gap and its influence over the life cycle; women’s economic independence; gender quotas; and thoughts on the #MeToo and Times Up campaigns.

In Australia, women’s economic security in retirement is a huge issue. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men, at the end of their working life, currently have 47% more retirement income, in the form of superannuation and savings, than women. Furthermore, one in three Australian women over the age of 65 is now considered to be living in income poverty. This is, of course, linked to the gender pay gap across the life cycle of most women.

I introduced what was happening in Scotland by giving a brief outline of the policy landscape. There has been a welcome shift in policy and rhetoric from Scottish Government in recent years which has put gender equality more on the map and it appeared that it appears to be more of a governmental priority, with policy ambitions on tackling women’s economic inequality more visible. However, in practice, I suggested that change is very slow, with key policies such as the economic strategy; labour market strategy etc. only marginally considering gender.

In 2016, provisional results indicated that the mean gender pay gap in Scotland was 14.9% when comparing of men's and women's overall average hourly earnings. And while women account for 49% of the labour market, 42% of women employed in Scotland work part-time compared to 13% of men; and women account for 76% of all part-time workers in Scotland. Policy responses to the pay gap in Scotland are complicated by the devolution settlement with employment and anti-discrimination law reserved to Westminster. However, Holyrood has power over a wide range of policy areas that are intrinsic to narrowing the pay gap including - early years, primary and secondary education, further and higher education, skills, economic development, employability, childcare, long-term care, the public sector equality duty, transport and procurement.

Economic inclusion and gender equality are stated objectives in many policy documents across the UK and the devolved administrations, yet despite this stated priority focus, the lack of gender-disaggregated data available across government departments and other government partner agencies persists.

All of the panel agreed that causes of any pay gap are context specific, but many contributing factors are common across the developed world, including -

• occupational segregation;

• a lack of quality part-time and flexible working;

• the economic undervaluation of stereotypical female work such as care, retail, admin and cleaning;

• women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work;

• ‘biased’ recruitment, development and progression practices;

• and discrimination in pay and grading systems.

Highlighting our work at WES, I highlighted that the rationale for women’s enterprise focusses on three crucial elements –

  • gender equality;

  • women’s economic empowerment;

  • and the contribution to economic growth.

In recent years, studies from the World Bank and the OECD are increasingly showing the significant contribution of women’s enterprise to economic growth and poverty reduction. This view applies not only in developing countries but also in high‑income countries, particularly in terms of employment in the post-recession global economy. For example -

  • Women-owned businesses contribute £105bn GVA to the UK economy - an increase of 40% since 2012;

• Employment in women-owned businesses has increased by 26% to 2.9m. The employment contribution from women-owned businesses represents 11.3% of total private sector employment - up from 9.8% in 2012.

A review of the literature surrounding female entrepreneurship identifies that more research is required on the impact of external factors such as, legislation; social norms; family policy; economic policy; and also, importantly the structure of the labour market including the degree and type of participation by women.

In New Zealand, while its measures on women’s representation in governments is very progressive, there are still issues of inequality for women in the labour market and wider society, for example, the lack of accounting for care and domestic labour. In Australia, while the situation might have improved for women over the years, it was described as almost like a ‘thin layer of icing’ of women but there were still huge challenges around the ageing population and also the risk to jobs predominantly done by women, of automation.

As ever, there is never enough time to fully discuss the key issues around gender equality, so we didn’t get around to discussing all the questions listed. However, it was a very interesting discussion and we have all agreed to keep in touch now that the initial contact has been made. There may even be more online discussions on the topic!

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