100 years on from suffrage, our jobs market locks women into poverty

It’s 100 years since women fought to be given the right to vote. But, says Helen Barnard, we still have a long way to go in giving women the right to be treated as equals in a job market that does not value part-time work.

The gender pay gap is in the headlines again, following recent controversy at the BBC. What’s less well known is what’s driving a long-term pay penalty for women in the wider economy - how little we value part-time work, and the fact that women do most of these jobs.

New research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), as we approach the 100-year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, reveals how the penalty for working part time is locking mothers and their families in poverty. One in five part-time workers live in poverty, compared to only one in ten of full-time workers.

We’ve come a long way

More women than ever before are in work – 7 in 10, compared to just over half in 1971. The rate is still below men’s employment (nearly 8 in 10), but it has moved much closer.  However, there still a stark difference in rates of full-time and part-time work. 6.3 million women work part time – 42% of all those employed. 2.3 million of men work part time – only 13%.   

The majority of women working part time are mothers, who often work part time so that they can also take care of children or other adults. But they pay a heavy price for trying to balance these two roles. The poverty rate for part-time workers is double that for full-time workers.   

The part-time penalty

The IFS report sheds light on why part-time workers are so disadvantaged. It has been clear for some time that the types of jobs that are available for part-time workers tend to be concentrated in lower-paid roles and sectors. The new study shows that a crucial consequence of this is that, once women switch to part-time work, they don’t then progress to higher-paid jobs.  

The research finds that the hourly wage gap between men and women is about 10% before having children. After the first child is born there is a gradual increase in the gap between men and women.  By the time their first child is 20, women’s hourly wages are about a third lower than men’s.  

It shows that this is less a result of women taking time out of the labour market altogether; a bigger driver is the difference in their likelihood of working part time or full time.  Women are far more likely to work part time after they have children, whereas men tend to stay in full-time work. The research shows that full-time workers see their pay increase as they gain more experience over time. Shockingly, gaining more experience in part-time work leads to next to no increase in wages.  

What can we do?

It’s just not right that we treat part-time workers as if they are less valuable than full timers. Millions of women and men want, and need, to work but also have responsibilities to children, partners, or parents. Many more have health conditions which mean they can work but can’t always manage full-time hours.

We can redesign the jobs market so it works for everyone. Employers can increase the number and quality of jobs open to part-time workers – and hire flexibly rather than only allowing existing employees to negotiate part-time hours. Changing employers’ practices to open up better-paid, part-time jobs is likely to be a long-term endeavour. In the meantime, as child poverty rises, the Chancellor should show he understands the pressures and ease the constraints facing low-income, part-time workers and their families by lifting the benefits freeze and fixing Universal Credit so families keep more of their earnings. 

In 1918 women got the right to vote. The question we should be asking is: 100 years later, why do we still tolerate a jobs market that penalises women who try to balance work and taking care of children? We cannot wait another century before we make progress.