Why poverty’s face is often a female one – Ruth Boyle

Two-thirds of workers who earn less than the living wage are women, but analysis of poverty tends to be carried out in a gender blind way, writes Ruth Boyle.
One reason behind the gender paid gap is womens concentration in undervalued work like cleaning (Picture: Adam Elder)One reason behind the gender paid gap is womens concentration in undervalued work like cleaning (Picture: Adam Elder)
One reason behind the gender paid gap is womens concentration in undervalued work like cleaning (Picture: Adam Elder)

One of the key messages of Challenge Poverty Week is that this is a problem which affects us all. At Close the Gap, we know that it affects women because the evidence shows poverty in Scotland is gendered.

By this we mean that women are more likely to be in poverty than men; are more likely to experience it while in work; find it harder to escape and are more likely to experience persistent poverty than men. The risk is even greater for black and minority ethnic, disabled and refugee and asylum-seeking women.

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So why is the experience of poverty gendered? One reason is the pay gap between men and women.

This represents a lifetime of inequality for women. Responses to the pay gap often focus on getting more women into senior roles. While vitally important, this ignores the fact that the pay gap is also caused by women’s concentration in low-paid, insecure and undervalued work such as care, retail and cleaning.

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Women are more likely than men to have caring responsibilities and therefore must find work that allows them to balance earning with caring. However, most part-time work is found in the lowest paid jobs.

Women’s employment is becoming increasingly precarious with women accounting for two-thirds of workers earning less than the living wage and 55 per cent of workers on zero-hour contracts. The rise in women’s self-employment has also coincided with a rise in low-paid self-employment.

A positive sign

Sexual harassment is more prevalent among women on insecure or zero-hour contracts, particularly younger women. Women on these types of contracts are also less likely to report problems for fear of repercussions, such as being denied shifts or flexibility, or losing their job. This compounds the disadvantage faced by women in the gig economy, where they are already some of the lowest paid workers.

Ultimately, this means that tackling inequality at work is key to tackling women’s higher rates of poverty. Despite this, the analysis of the problem is often gender-blind.

However, a positive development is the publication of Fairer Scotland for Women, the Scottish Government’s first action plan. It recognises the links between gender and poverty, and women’s poverty and child poverty. The plan is clear that tackling the pay gap is essential to overcoming in-work poverty.

And it has the potential to be an important anti-poverty framework, providing actions and recommendations across a range of policy areas such as early learning and childcare, skills training, employability, economic development, procurement and social security.

Economic independence

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For the ambitions of this plan to be realised, women’s experiences of in-work poverty must be considered in labour market policymaking. At present, this is often not the case with key policies failing to consider women’s different experiences.

Anti-poverty organisations must also recognise that poverty has a female face and work to understand how different groups of women are impacted by in-work poverty. The Living Wage campaign has already started this work, considering how the pay gap can be better reflected in campaigns work. However, this must be extended to all anti-poverty work, ensuring that women’s specific needs are explicitly addressed.

For equality organisations, there is a need to ensure that poverty is a key theme of our work, highlighting its impact on women’s experiences of domestic abuse, wellbeing and economic independence.

Challenging poverty in Scotland requires teamwork. Working together on these interlinked ambitions will enable us to challenge women’s economic inequality, meet Scotland’s targets on child poverty and make real progress towards closing the gender pay gap in Scotland.

Ruth Boyle is policy and parliamentary officer at Close the Gap