Female skills wasted in the Welsh economy

Christine O’Byrne explores the stereotypes and inequalities that women still experience at the workplace

A Woman’s Place, just published by Chwarae Teg (here), examines the stereotypes and inequalities still experienced by women in the Welsh workforce. It measures the progress that has been made over the last twenty years and identifies the barriers which continue to hold women back.

Some 600 women and 400 employers across Wales took part in this study to share their views and perception of gender equality in Wales.  Overall, we found that, whilst progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to do if Wales is to make the most of this valuable resource.

We found that more women are working than ever before. Two thirds of women are undertaking some form of paid employment.  However, parity with men is yet to be achieved. For example, nearly half of the female workforce (44 per cent) is employed in part-time positions, compared with just 12 per cent of men. Moreover, they still receive around 20 per cent less pay on average than their male counterparts despite some reduction in the gap between male and female earnings over recent years.

Powerful stereotypes continue to exist around what jobs are appropriate for women.Women still hold strong views about what jobs are suitable for men and women.  Of the 600 women in the survey, 80 per cent said that ‘builder’ was a job better suited to a man. Nearly half thought the same about ‘plumber’ or ‘electrician’. On the other hand, 25 per cent of women thought that ‘administration’ was a role better suited to a woman.

These attitudes produce a clear gender segregation in the workplace with women concentrated in a small number of industry sectors.  For example, 59 per cent of women work in Public Administration, Education and Health compared with just 20 per cent of men.

Vertical segregation is also apparent in the workplace although there are more women in management today than there were in the past:  7 per cent of women are now working in management or senior roles compared with 11 per cent of men. Despite this progress, a lack of part-time or flexible roles at this level seems to be a barrier to women’s career progression. Women themselves perceive part-time work to be incompatible with work at a senior level.

Females are doing well in education and women are more likely to receive in-work training than men. Yet they continue to work in low skilled, low-paid jobs.  Of the women in our survey, 28 per cent felt that their job failed to make full use of their skills and experience. This was particularly true for women in low level jobs or working part-time.  In terms of progression, 59 per cent said that they would not be happy to remain in their current job role and yet only one in seven said they wanted promotion. Barriers for women who did want to progress were age (even for relatively young women) and lack of opportunities in the labour market.

In general women are seen as carers first and earners second. However, there were some clear areas of change when it came to balancing care and work.  Firstly, although women still take on most of the responsibility for looking after the family and home, women are half as likely today to not work for this reason.  When Chwarae Teg first carried out this work 20 years ago, one in five women were not in employment because they were looking after the family and home, whereas today that figure is one in ten.

Access to flexible working has also improved over the period with 78 per cent of women saying that flexible working opportunities are more available today than they were ten years ago.  Nearly two thirds of employers, 62 per cent, said they offer this benefit to their employees today compared with 39 per cent in 1996.

We were pleased to see that more women are now working up to the birth of their child and have access to paid maternity leave. In 1996, 36 per cent of women were employed up to the birth of their child, and 55 per cent had access to paid maternity leave compared with 65 per cent and 87 per cent today.

Nonetheless, it is a concern that 25 per cent of the women surveyed appeared not to have access to their statutory rights as parents, while 15 per cent of employers appeared not to meet their statutory obligations.

A clear message from the study is that inequality outside of the workplace shapes inequality within it. Overall, we can conclude that progress has been made but there is still a way to go in achieving equality for women in the workplace.  Stereotypes continue to limit opportunities and whilst employment is now the norm for most women, parity with men has yet to be achieved.

Wales needs to make better use of the skills and experience of working women.  Females are being supported to achieve in training and education in the workplace. But this is not currently translating to success which means that this valuable resource is largely wasted. The challenge is for all of us to think about what we can do to support women to reach their potential so that they can contribute fully to economic growth.

Christine O’Byrne is Policy and Public Affairs Manager with Chwarae Teg.

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