It’s not just the glass ceiling that’s holding women back – it’s the sticky floor

This International Women’s Day, let’s remember that in our efforts to achieve gender equality at the top, we mustn’t forget the struggles faced by millions of women at the bottom

Katherine Chapman@KChapmanLWF
Saturday 07 March 2020 11:17
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Often the focus of International Women’s Day is balancing gender in the boardroom. It’s heartening to see that some progress has been made on this front, with a third of all FTSE 350 boardroom roles now held by women (although men are still seven times more likely to hold some of the most senior positions at Britain’s most valuable firms). As important as breaking through the glass ceiling is, however, we cannot forget its flip-side: the sticky floor.

Women across the UK are disproportionately stuck in low-paying, insecure and precarious jobs that often pay less than the ‘real living wage’ (an independent calculation based on costs such as food, clothing and household bills). In fact, research by KPMG found that of 5.2 million jobs paying less than the real living wage of £10.75 in London and £9.30 across the UK, 3.2 million are occupied by female workers. Fifteen per cent of male workers are paid less than the real living wage compared to 24 per cent of female workers. As women struggle to break into the FTSE boardroom, almost one in four women are not earning enough to pay their bills.

Women workers tend to be clustered in low-paid occupations. Of the professions with the highest proportion of workers paid less than the living wage, eight out of 10 are industries – such as cleaning, care work and retail – that are dominated by women. The research also found that women in part-time work make up by far the largest demographic group earning less than the living wage, with 2.1 million female workers struggling to earn fair pay for their work.

This precarious, low-paid work has a serious impact on the mental and financial health of women and their families. The recent publication of the 10-year review of Sir Michael Marmot’s landmark review of health inequalities found that, alarmingly, life expectancy has stalled for the first time in a century, and actually declined for the most disadvantaged women – particularly in the northeast and Yorkshire, where life expectancy of the poorest 10 per cent of women has decreased by almost an entire year since 2012.

Our research at the Living Wage Foundation has highlighted the damaging effects of low pay on the personal and family lives of working parents. 71 per cent of those we surveyed worry so much about their financial stability that it affects their day-to-day routine; almost a quarter believe that their low pay has negatively impacted their relationships with their friends and families. The stress placed on women in badly paid and precarious jobs is immense. I was recently struck by the experience of a single mother of three in Portsmouth. While her day job was a care assistant, she was on the verge of accepting night shifts just to make ends meet. Fortunately, her wages were increased to the real living wage, which meant that she was able to continue supporting her family without taking on night work.

Measures to combat low pay and insecure work are paramount to addressing gender pay disparity. Over 6,200 leading employers have now signed up to the real living wage, voluntarily committing to go further than the government minimum and pay their employees a wage that covers the real cost of living. Crucially, this includes contract workers like cleaners and catering assistants, roles disproportionately occupied by women.

Last year, we launched a new Living Hours programme, which asks employers to provide workers with guaranteed hours and shift patterns, providing greater security. This is vital in avoiding additional costs often disproportionately carried by women, such as childcare that needs to be rearranged at the last minute due to last-minute shift cancellations.

Living wage employers and those committing to our Living Hours programme are leading the charge in lifting women out of in-work poverty, and providing wage security that translates to greater mental, physical and financial wellbeing for women and their families. But if we are to tackle the problem of low pay and pay inequality on any serious scale, many more must follow suit.

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This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “each for equal”, recognising all of the actions we can take as individuals to challenge stereotypes, fight prejudice and celebrate women’s achievements. One action that employers across the UK can take is to sign up to the real living wage.

Breaking the glass ceiling is vital to driving gender parity in the workplace. But in our efforts to achieve gender equality at the top, we cannot forget the struggles faced by millions of women at the bottom. As we continue the struggle for women’s rights, let’s not just shatter the glass ceiling: let’s clean up the sticky floor, too.

Katherine Chapman is director of the Living Wage Foundation.

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