There’s a strong economic case for women’s equality, so why so little progress?

There’s a strong economic case for women’s equality, so why so little progress?

by Kirstein Rummery
article from Monday 22, May, 2017

CAMPAIGNERS FOR women’s equality often draw attention to the social costs inequality entails: the risk or experience of sexual violence, the lack of role models in positions of power, and the everyday sexism experienced by women. Recent research has, however, highlighted the huge economic impact of women’s inequality, particularly in European economies.[i] One estimate states that failing to address the gender pay gap costs around 12 per cent of GDP in the UK: that’s a loss to the Scottish economy of around £17 billion over the next decade.[ii]

Companies that work to address women’s inequality consistently outperform those that don’t: flexible working and childcare dramatically reduce retention and training costs[iii], companies with 3 or more female board members show greater returns on equity and capital investment, with the returns improving even further with mandated 50/50 representation[iv]. Investment in childcare is estimated to show a direct economic return of around £2 for every £1 spent, with this figure rising to £5 when wider proven benefits (such as addressing inequalities in educational outcomes and local economic growth, particularly in low income areas) are taken into account – far higher than investment in capital infrastructure[v].

Moreover the direct costs of domestic abuse (the victims of which are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, women) were judged in 2001 to be around £23 billion, and an investment in public services reducing this to £16 billion by 2008[vi] despite a rise of reported incidents. Current Scottish Government figures estimate that the cost to the Scottish purse of domestic abuse is £2.3 billion, and given that that this does not include unreported incidents or the wider social and economic costs this is likely to be a very conservative estimate. Not only does preventing domestic abuse and supporting its victims make financial sense, it also has a huge impact on the victims and their families.

With the evidence so clear, why have the governing political parties in the UK and Scotland not taken more action to improve women’s equality?

Despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, the pay gap persists. The costs of enforcing the direct pay gap (where men and women are paid differently for the same job) falls to individuals willing to take legal action. There has been a historic disinclination to use punitive measures against public and private sector industries from all governing parties in the UK and Scotland, preferring instead to rely on ‘soft’ measures encouraging compliance. But the evidence shows that this simply does not work even where there is direct discrimination in pay as structural systems are designed to protect non-transparency.

The persistence of the gap is, however, largely due to indirect, rather than direct discrimination. This manifests itself largely in horizontal occupational segregation, with men and women clustered in gender segregated jobs even at similar skills levels (for example refuse collectors, overwhelmingly men, are paid on average £2 ph more than nursery workers, who are overwhelmingly women). This makes no rational or economic sense at all: we place a much greater value on the care of our children than our bins, and the skills needed to care for children are more complex and wide ranging than those needed to empty refuse. The explanation is that work that is seen as women’s work is undervalued and work that is seen as men’s work is overvalued.

The pay gap is narrowest at the beginning of careers, then widens considerably over time[vii]. This is due in part to vertical occupational segregation (where men are overrepresented in senior management and women are overrepresented in junior roles, even within the same occupation: the majority of primary school teachers are women, whereas the majority of primary school headteachers are men). It is also, however, due to unpaid work (for example childcare, care and support of disabled and older people) being seen as the responsibility of women rather than men. The costs can be attributed to career breaks, down-skilling and part-time work undertaken in order to balance paid and unpaid work. Whilst economists argue that this is down to ‘rational choice’ – ie women choosing to do this – the international comparative evidence does not bear this out. In economies with lower levels of horizontal and vertical occupational segregation and a greater economic valuation of ‘women’s work’ a more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work across the genders takes place[viii].

Rates of violence against women, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault, have remained static over the years and currently 1 in 5 Scottish women will experience these over their lifetime. Victims are unwilling to report attacks, and when they do, only 28 per cent of these reports are passed on resulting in the decision to prosecute. Of these, less than 1 per cent result in a conviction. It is clearly a nonsense to say that the 41 per cent of girls who reported that they had experienced rape were lying[ix]. But the persistence of rape culture – where sexual violence against women and girls is normalised by society – means that juries are unwilling to convict unless there is overwhelming forensic evidence. Moreover, the lack of education on sexual relationships and consent to offset rape culture in Scotland means that girls and boys grow up normalising beliefs that places the blame on the victims, and allows the perpetrators the defence of behaving within accepted gendered social norms.

How many times have we heard girls told to dress conservatively, and not drink to protect themselves, and how many times have we heard the excuse ‘boys will be boys’? But surely it is demeaning to boys and men to suggest that they cannot control themselves, and are prone to violence against women? Yet these myths persist and underpin legal and social systems.

Successive UK and Scottish governments have failed to act to address gender inequalities such as those discussed here – and the failure to invest adequately in social care, to tackle the low numbers of women in political representation, to deal with sexism in the media and the workplace and many other issues – despite overwhelming evidence that the social and economic costs of these inequalities is huge. With one exception there is nothing in the manifestoes of any of the political parties in Scotland that suggests a serious commitment to changing this: the main parties are clearly lining themselves up along traditional lines of pro and anti Scottish independence, soft or hard Brexit, pro or anti immigration and so on.

The exception is the Women’s Equality Party. In under two years it has grown from an idea to an established party with over 65,000 members – more than double the membership of UKIP – fuelled most recently by a growing sense of impatience with the lack of progress on women’s equality made by the other parties. Its manifesto presents a list of carefully costed policies explicitly focussed on tackling women’s inequality, making the economic and social justice case for each one. Rather than the traditional political approach of competition with other parties, outside of the core policy areas, the party is non-partisan and openly willing to engage in political alliances – for example endorsing Caroline Lucas of the Greens in Brighton in return for their endorsement of Sophie Walker in Shipley.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be in challenging the political culture in the UK and Scotland, but if it does, the economic prospects for the UK would appear to be substantially improved. Given the risks to the economy of the forthcoming market instability caused by Brexit and the prospect of a second independence referendum in Scotland, that would be a welcome relief.

Kirstein Rummery, Professor of Social Policy, Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies is the Women’s Equality Party candidate for the general election in Stirling. See

Christiansen, Lone, et al. "Inefficient Inequality: The Economic Costs of Gender Inequality in Europe." Intereconomics 1 (2017): 4.


[iii] Ali, M., Kulik, C.T. & Metz, I. (2011) “The gender diversity-performance relationship in services and manufacturing organizations”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management vol. 22, no. 7, pp. 1464-1485

[iv] Ahern, K.R. & Dittmar, A.K. (2012) “The Changing of the Boards: The Impact on Firm Valuation of Mandated Female Board Representation” The Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 127, no. 1, pp. 137-197

[v] Susan Prentice, "High Stakes: The “Investable” Child and the Economic Reframing of Childcare," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 34, no. 3 (Spring 2009): 687-710.


[vii] Close the Gap (2016) Working Paper 16: Statistics Close the Gap available at Statistics.pdf [last accessed 23 March 2016]

[viii] K Rummery et al (2017) What Works in Gender Equality, Policy Press, Bristol


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