Julia Unwin: Women have waited too long for genuine equality

Have your say

OVER the weekend, women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day. The ambitions of the day were wide. It sought to inspire fairness for women in sports, to achieve equal recognition across the arts, to inspire more women-owned businesses, to encourage financial independence for women and inspire more women to work in science and technology and occupy senior leadership roles.

I support all of these aims. They are hugely important, not just for women, but for the benefit of society as a whole. And they absolutely shouldn’t be necessary.

But we don’t live in a world where equality is a given, we are divided by gender, by income, by living standards, by education, and so we must keep focusing on the differences, to seek out ways to eradicate them.

If we are to achieve genuine equality for women, then helping those at the bottom is a good place to start. While there is a lot of talk about the need for more women employed as chief executives and non-executive board member roles, we will never have more women in high-ranking posts if we don’t iron out the structural obstacles stacked against them at the start of their careers.

We know that childcare is a major barrier to mothers entering work or wanting to increase their working hours. Equally the lack of good, affordable childcare is a huge anxiety for women who are working, and too frequently drives them from the workplace. Good quality childcare and education can boost early child development, offering some protection against future poverty.

Isn’t it time that we invested properly in our childcare and treated it as part of the essential economic infrastructure, just like transport and the provision of broadband? We need reform of the £7bn ‘patchwork’ childcare provision
 – a mix of free entitlements, tax credits and vouchers funded by the Government – we need moves towards a more universal system of low cost, or better still, free provision. Only last week
the Family and Childcare Trust reported that for many families, the cost of childcare now exceeds their mortgage costs.

This is not just about the personal aspirations of women, important though those are. Poverty is hugely wasteful for society. Child poverty costs the Government £29bn a year, and it completely disregards the potential of those children. The risk of poverty is much higher for children in couples where only one parent works.

If one parent is working long hours, and is unable to share childcare responsibilities, this inevitably leaves the other parent, usually the mother, facing both work and childcare struggles. This is restricting the progress on reducing poverty and on the attempts to draw more women into employment. The choice between no work and poverty, or poorly paid and part-time work that barely covers the bills, is not really a choice at all. Those earning a higher wage may have more freedom over how to share work and childcare, but those in poorer households find their options very limited indeed.

Low-paid work is an increasingly permanent state: the proportion of people in low-paid work declined in the early 2000s but this progress has stalled in the years since, and has risen since the onset of recession. Women are more under-employed than men, both those lacking but wanting work, and those currently working part-time who are seeking full-time employment. This, coupled with the unacceptably wide pay gap (men working full-time earn between 74p and £2.34 an hour more than their female equivalents), is deepening poverty for women.

Working for a lower wage than men, or working fewer hours than desired, then goes on to have a negative impact on pension contributions. This can be exacerbated by time away from employment to have and raise a family. Older women face an old age of penury if they have not been able to work for adequate wages.

The irony is that women save the Government billions of pounds a year in informal caring roles. Carers UK estimates that without unpaid carers the country would be facing a £119m care bill. In 2011, 45 per cent more of those vital people were unpaid female carers than were unpaid male carers. If those carers need to get a full-time job to pull themselves out of poverty, who will provide the care then? And how will we fund it?

For thousands of women across the UK, their gender is the single biggest factor determining their lives – their income, their wealth, their working lives and their long-term future.

We are losing their skills, their experience, their knowledge, their capacity and their capability. They are struggling, and we as a society, are suffering for it. It is time to do something about it.

• Julia Unwin is chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, based in York.