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Indyref, women and the labour market (Indyref Thursday #1)

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In the run-up to our event on 'gender equality, the referendum and beyond', we'll be publishing a weekly blog to correspond with our 'Scotland's futures' briefing papers series. First up is women and the labour market by Engender's Director, Emma Ritch.

Women in Scotland experience a vastly different workplace from men. Women work in different jobs, earn lower wages, experience the bulk of sexual harassment, have a precarious place in male-dominated organisations and sectors, and are vanishingly unlikely to end their careers around a boardroom table.

The scale of the differences is so enormous as to be almost invisible: it fills the vision of women as they grapple with the everyday ordinariness of balancing work, friends, and family life. The inequalities have developed a different veneer since the 1950s, but many of the changes have been superficial. Some of the key indicators of inequality, like who works part-time, have barely flickered in generations. In some places in Scotland, we’re even recreating the typing pool, as public bodies make ‘efficiency savings’.

Getting to grips with women and work can be a technical minefield, with overlapping policies, sets of statistics, and legal structures in play. So what should we all be thinking about when we cast our ballots on 18 September?

1. Where does power currently lie?

Of all of the gender equalities terrain that is bisected by the devolution settlement, the labour market is most firmly owned by Westminster. Both equalities law and employment law are reserved, which means that the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, and their successor, the Equality Act 2010 are Westminster pieces of legislation. These are tools for remedying things for individuals. Although the tribunal service has attempted to accommodate the batches of cases that have proceeded in the aftermath of pay modernisation in the NHS and local government, we don’t have a real equivalent to the American class action system. Consequently, the current legal framework is best designed for providing compensation to individuals who have been discriminated against, rather than fixing the structural problems that frequently give rise to the discrimination.

Westminster is also responsible for social security and employability, two critical policy areas that relate very obviously to employment.

Scotland is responsible for the performance of the piece of equalities regulation that requires a little more proactivity on the part of the public bodies. The public sector equality duty (PSED) covers all of GB, but the specific requirements for Scotland are determined in Scotland, by the Scottish Government. These include a range of actions that have been designed to narrow the gender pay gap, and encourage public sector employers to get on top of workplace discrimination and inequality. There is no question that the requirements in Scotland are more stringent than those in England, which is at least partly attributable to the lobbying that equalities organisations did when the Scottish Government was formulating the regulations.Work by Close the Gap, though, suggests that the effect on women’s experience of work is limited, with a poor response on the part of many public sector employers.

Scotland is also responsible for a whole sweep of policy areas that relate to women and work. Economic development, education and skills, and childcare are all within the purview of the Scottish Government.

2. Where do we go from here?

The three main Westminster parties have different visions for equalities regulation. Although it’s underpinned by European law, which means that it’s impossible to scrap the Equality Act completely and stay in the EU, many within the Tory party have been explicit in framing equalities law as ‘red tape’ that impedes businesses for no good reason.

The Liberal Democrats have been more circumspect. They abandoned their commitment to some equality measures during the negotiations around the coalition agreement, but have picked some of these up again as we head towards the 2015 Westminster election.

Labour, the party that has formed most of the Governments that have passed equalities law, has a much better track record, but has been determined in resisting calls for measures like mandatory pay audits that would put the onus for equality more firmly onto employers.

The outcome of the 2015 Westminster elections will be critical in determining what happens next to equalities law if Scotland remains part of the UK.

It would be hard to argue that this Scottish Government (and previous Scottish Governments) isn’t ahead of the Westminster pack on women and work. The Women’s Employment Summit, continued funding for Close the Gap and other initiatives, equality budget statement, proposal to provide universal childcare, and continuing commitment to improving PSED are all indicators of a willingness to make progress that is currently missing south of the border. This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t significant areas that could be improved using Scotland’s existing powers. Economic development, education and skills (despite the recent and helpful Wood Commission report), and enterprise are all agendas that remain frustratingly ungendered.

How all of this would translate into a Scottish suite of anti-discrimination and employment law remains to be seen.

3. So there's no short answer to whether we should vote 'yes' or 'no'?

No short answer, no, but we’ve written a great paper about it here.

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