Women’s participation rate in the labour market (the percentage of women of working age who are employed or seeking work) in the UK has steadily increased. Compared to 1971, when 53% of women aged 16-64 were in employment, the figure stood at 67% in 2013.
Since the 1970s, there have been several advances to address inequalities and discrimination at work that have historically affected women in the UK. Women have successfully gained rights to maternity leave and pay, campaigned against sexual harassment at work and to extend the initial equal pay legislation of 1970 to close loopholes.
At the same time, women have also made their voices heard within trade unions which were historically led by men and which neglected women workers’ needs. Unionisation rates among women workers increased steadily from 1970s onwards. Although overall union membership has fallen amongst workers in the UK, in 2011, union density (the percentage of workers who are members of trade unions) remains higher amongst women employees (28.7%) than amongst male employees (23.4%) (Brownlie 2011, p.13). Women still remain under–represented in the leadership of British trade unions, but as women campaign for change within and through their trade unions there has been much improvement over the last two decades. In 2012, Frances O’Grady was the first woman to be elected as the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a national federation which represents the majority of trade unions in the UK.
Though there have been many victories in the story of women’s work in the UK, some issues have remained remarkably persistent over the last few decades. In the 21st century, even in families where women engage in full-time waged work, women continue to undertake the vast majority of domestic labour (cooking, cleaning, caring for children and sick relatives). The household and childcare duties that follow the day's work for pay outside the home have been called the ‘second shift’ by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1989). This second shift makes a woman’s working day, on average, much longer than a typical man’s. A woman’s role within the family and her primary responsibility for domestic labour also has a huge impact on the type of employment women can undertake.
Recent research shows that even in relationships where both men and women work full-time, women do the vast majority of the housework. Overall, 8 out of 10 married women do more housework than their partners. Based on the pace of change so far, Dr Sullivan from the University of Oxford estimates that women will continue to do the lion’s share of housework till well into the 2050s! She believes that cultural attitudes, reinforced at school, may be responsible for perpetuating gender-specific views of different domestic jobs. “At school it is much easier for a girl to be a Tom-boy but it is much more difficult for a boy to enjoy baking and dancing because he will be defined as a ‘sissy,’” she commented.
Although there are exceptions, if we examine the labour market as a whole, women’s participation continues to be restricted to a large extent to particular occupations – jobs that are considered ‘women’s work’. In 2012, women were still concentrated in the five ‘Cs’ – caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. For example, in 2012, 19% of women in employment did administrative or secretarial work compared to 5% of men; 15% of women workers were employed in care work compared to 2% of men; and 10% of women worked in sales compared to 5% of men (Grant et al, 2005). These jobs also have lower hourly wages and poorer working conditions.
Since the 1990s, there have been significant changes in the organisation of work. Many businesses and public sector employers have started to subcontract services. This means that instead of directly employing workers such as cleaners, hospital porters and “dinner ladies” at schools, employers are now likely to contract a private company to provide the service. This generally means that the jobs are more likely to be casual, poorly paid, and with fewer rights and worse conditions than direct employment. This has particularly affected women’s jobs as they tend to be concentrated in the lowest levels of employment.
The public sector cuts brought about by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010-13 are also likely to have a negative impact on women’s employment. The changes will reduce the public sector workforce by almost 7%. Since women make up 65% of the overall public sector workforce - including 75% of local government workers, 77% of the NHS workforce and 80% of the adult social care workforce – these policies have resulted in many thousands of women losing their jobs.
Migrant women workers in the UK labour market: 1971-present
The disadvantage and discrimination faced by migrant women workers in the labour market has been called the ‘ethnic penalty’ in employment. When combined with gender, it means that non-white women experience higher unemployment rates, lower wages and poorer prospects than their white counterparts. The unemployment rates for male and female non-white workers are more than the rate for white workers.
The situation of women of South Asian origin who migrated to in the UK in the 1970s and 80s from India (Punjab), Pakistan, Bangladesh (in smaller numbers), Sri Lanka and from East Africa illustrates these difficulties. Despite having completed secondary education, these migrant women found that many jobs in retail, clerical work, teaching and secretarial work that were generally considered ‘women’s jobs’ remained closed to them. Instead they had to settle for the lowest paid jobs in laundrettes, doing packing and assembly work at factories, sewing garments, food processing and as cleaners in the public and private sector.
In the 1970s, the disadvantage faced by non-white women workers was exacerbated by the trade unions’ neglect of their concerns. But over the years, many non-white women have resisted discrimination at work and have taken part in several strikes to improve their pay and conditions – with, or in some cases without, union support. This includes the famous Grunwick strike by South Asian women in 1976-78. Black and Asian women have also organized themselves within the trade union movement and succeeded in raising awareness about issues like racism and gender discrimination within the workplace. This has made today’s trade unions more inclusive than in previous decades.
The daughters of the first generation of migrant women are increasingly obtaining university education. The participation rates of South Asian women in higher education varies depending on their parents’ origin (whether they are from Bangladesh, India or Pakistan), their social class (whether they are from poor, middle class or affluent families) and their families’ educational backgrounds. However, what is common is that South Asian women in all three groups have increased their participation in higher education more rapidly than white women since the early 1990s.
However, they continue to face barriers that prevent their entry into the labour market after graduation. South Asian women, especially Bangladeshi and Pakistani women, still remain among the most excluded and lowest-paid sections of the labour force.
More recent migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers from the many conflict areas of the world, face even more difficulties trying to find work in the UK economy which is going through a prolonged period of recession in 2013. In spite of minimum wage legislation, many of these women are forced to work at very low pay, often juggling two or three jobs to make ends meet. But they continue to find jobs to support their families, as well as doing the vast majority of the housework and childcare on which their families depend.