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Guest blog: Women and work: what next? (Indyref Thursday #7)

Lego woman working at a computerIn the run-up to the referendum, we'll be publishing views on women's equality and Scotland's constitutional futures. This week, Close the Gap development officer Lindsey Millen writes on the implications of the referendum for the women and work.

After months of campaigning, discussion and debate, what is arguably the biggest political event of a generation is almost upon us. With just over two weeks to go until the referendum, Close the Gap launched a new working paper ‘Women and work: What comes next in a post-referendum Scotland?’ at a Constitutional Café event with Engender, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, and Scottish Women’s Aid last Saturday. The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of the implications for women and work in the context of the independence debate, to describe what needs to happen to effect positive change, and to identify the levers that are available in the event of either outcome.

We already know women face a multitude of barriers and inequalities in the labour market. The gender pay gap remains stubbornly high at 13% in a labour market characterised by persistent occupational segregation, with women clustered into low-skilled, low-valued, and low-paid work at one end of the scale, and denied access to the top roles at the other. Women overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of care, for children, older people and disabled people, and often find themselves faced with downward occupational mobility on returning to work after maternity or other care leave.

In the current environment of public sector cuts implemented by the Westminster government, women, who make up two third of the public sector workforce, are being cast adrift. Forced reductions in hours, recruitment freezes and an increase in flexible working request refusals equate to a squeeze on the terms and conditions of those women who remain in the public sector.

The reason for the disproportionate impact of the cuts agenda on women is simple: women’s pre-existing inequality. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on September 18th, it is essential the women’s movement comes together and uses the momentum of the debate to progress work around women’s equality. With a view to this, there are three main areas for intervention around employment issues: education and skills, employability, and economic development strategy.

The status quo

In the event of a No vote, there are many levers available to capitalise on the desire for change which has characterised both sides of the independence debate, and further women’s equality as a result.

On education and skills, we could call on the Scottish Government to increase its action on gender stereotyping in our education system. Currently, there are only two initiatives, Be What You Want and Careerwise, specifically working on the issue of gender stereotyping and occupational segregation in schools in Scotland. More needs to be done to build girls’ and young women’s capacity and resilience to choose to study non-traditional subjects across the education lifespan.

On employability, we could call on the Scottish Government to meet its commitment to produce an action plan on gender. Employability programmes must be cognisant of the specific barriers faced by women; funding structures should provide support for childcare, and employability pathways must seek to tackle, not reinforce, gendered occupational segregation. Women returning to the workforce after taking a break to have children or deliver care would benefit from particular support to help prevent downward occupational mobility and ensure their skills are effectively utilised.

Across the broad area of economic development, we could call on the Scottish Government to fully mainstream gender across all of its functions, ensuring this translates into effective action to tackle occupational segregation and the gender pay gap. This could include building capacity within key agencies to provide a gender analysis of skills, and key sector development policy addressing the gendered nature of skills shortages. The economic framing of childcare as infrastructure must be further developed to ensure provision continues to be extended, and to contribute to the discourse around recognition of the economic value of domestic labour.

Independence

The structural change that would take place in an independent Scotland offers the opportunity to see gender equality built in from the outset. Scotland’s Future’s proposal for a written constitution would enshrine state obligations on the advancement of equality and see human rights guaranteed.

The Scottish Independence Bill consultation, which provides the constitutional platform for the government of Scotland following a vote for independence, proposes that a permanent written constitution would be drawn up by an ‘inclusive and participative’ Convention. It is essential the process by which this Constitutional Convention would be established is inclusive and participative in itself, and ensures that gender groups are properly represented within it.

There would also be the possibility to effect structural progress within the new institutions and legislation which would be developed and implemented in an independent Scotland, and to develop a new economic measure which counts the unpaid work that women do.

Post September 19th

There are no guarantees under either outcome. What is guaranteed is that in order for women’s inequality in the labour market to be tackled there needs to be action, not simply a commitment to principles.

The consequence of a lack of action is already evident in the continued occupational segregation in the MA programme an issue which has been highlighted by the women’s sector for more than ten years. The same mistakes can be seen in employability and economic development, where gender-blind policies and structural barriers combine to reinforce women’s disadvantaged position. While this disconnect remains, gender strategies will be fragmented, piecemeal, and passed over in practice.

Reproductive labour – unpaid domestic work and care for children, older people and disabled people – props up the formal economy, and recognition of this in formal economic value systems is essential if we are to begin to value the work that women do.

Whether in an independent Scotland or as part of the UK, what is needed is major structural reform and widespread cultural change, and this can only be achieved through a root and branch review of systems and policies, the engagement of all stakeholders, and long-term adequately resourced action plans.

Measurable and meaningful targets for tackling gendered occupational segregation, policies which reflect the cross-cutting nature of gender issues, and effective gender mainstreaming, are essential to progress true gender equality within the labour market and the wider economy.

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Lindsey Millen is a Development Officer with Close the Gap, a partnership project which works across Scotland around women and the labour market. She is currently working to support public sector employers to meet the public sector equality duty, and she also leads on the project’s engagement with trade unions.

Hard copies of Close the Gap's paper ‘Women and work: What comes next in a post-referendum Scotland?’ are available from acallaghan@stuc.org.uk

Close the Gap is a partnership project which works across Scotland on equal pay and women’s participation in the labour market. For more information, go to www.closethegap.org.uk.

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