New study shows working women at sharp end of cost of living crisis with 26% trapped in severely insecure work

A photograph of two housekeepers in uniforms making a bed © Liliana Drew, Pexels

UK women are almost twice as likely (1.8 times) to be trapped in severely insecure work than men – and the situation worsens for mothers, black women and disabled women.

New research by the Work Foundation at Lancaster University reveals 26% of working women (3.9 million) are currently trapped in severely insecure work in the UK, compared to 14% of men. This inequality is reflected through all working ranks, with even those in the most senior positions currently twice as likely to experience severely insecure work when compared with men (9.2% compared with 4.5%).

The Work Foundation defines ‘insecure work’ as roles that have unpredictable pay, no guarantee of set hours or future work, and no access to employment rights and protections. Using a single measure to reflect these three dimensions, the Work Foundation studied 20 years’ of ONS labour force data to launch its own UK Insecure Work Index earlier this year, to give a clearer picture of the stability of the labour market.

It revealed insecure work has been a defining feature of the UK labour market since the turn of the 21st century, and this latest 2022 data gives greater focus by looking specifically at trends through a gender lens.

Melanie Wilkes, Head of Research at the Work Foundation, said: “We find 3.9 million women across the UK are currently trapped in insecure work – which means they are in roles with unpredictable pay and hours, and limited access to rights such as sick pay or redundancy pay outs. Crucially, this affects significantly more women than men.

“We know this sort of insecurity can have negative long-term effects on women’s careers, financial security and health and wellbeing. Set against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, falling real wages and an impending recession, we’re living in extremely challenging times for those in low paid, insecure jobs who are struggling to make ends meet – and it’s clear that women are at the very sharp end of this crisis.”

Parental Penalty

The new analysis reveals that mothers face particularly challenging barriers in today’s job market. Mothers with children under nine are 2.7 times more likely than fathers (30.4% compared with 11.2%), and 1.9 times more likely than women without children (30.4% compared with 24.7%), to experience severely insecure work - and this is only partly related to mothers being more likely to work part-time. As well as many having to work fewer hours due to childcare, the Work Foundation finds working mothers generally have higher levels of contractual insecurity than fathers, and are more likely to experience low or unpredictable pay.

Ethnic divide

There is also a significant divide when it comes to the ethnicity of employees in insecure work in the UK – but, crucially, the effect is not the same for men as for women. White men are significantly less likely to be in insecure work when compared to Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Black men; but there is more of a mixed picture for women. Black women are 1.4 times more likely to experience severely insecure work than black men (30.3% compared with 21.8%), and 4.8 percentage points more likely than white women (30.3% compared with 25.5%).

Disability employment gap

The study also suggests recent efforts by Government to narrow the disability employment gap have not been as successful as was hoped, with 30.2% of disabled women currently trapped in severely insecure work (in comparison to 25% of non-disabled women). This appears to be driven by involuntary temporary work, low paid work, and self-employment being more common among disabled women than non-disabled women.

“The gender insecurity gap can help us understand why, despite concerted efforts, steady increases in women joining the labour market hasn’t translated to equality in pay or progression,” Melanie Wilkes continues. “Too often, women are having to compromise access to secure and stable work in order to get flexibility that fits with their day to day lives.

“Our analysis shows job insecurity also impacts women working at the very top of organisations. Women in senior manager roles are twice as likely as men working at that level to be in severely insecure work – something largely driven by the fact that women are more likely to be in temporary roles involuntarily. So, they’d choose to be in permanent positions if they could.

“Despite the efforts by Government to redress the gender balance in the labour market by encouraging more women into senior roles, it’s clear that there are fundamental structural inequalities that will prevent genuine equity. A blinkered approach focusing only on progression and seats at the top table will get us so far– to drive meaningful change and to achieve true equality for women, we need to tackle labour market insecurity.”

In its briefing ‘The gender gap – insecure work in the UK’ published today, the Work Foundation outlines recommendations to drive long term change and greater equality in the labour market.

Recommendations include:

  • Requiring Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is paid from the first day of absence, available to all workers, and raising rates to be in line with minimum wage
  • Embed flexibility in all roles, and make it available to all workers from first day of work
  • Running a campaign with employers to actively promote take up of flexible working among men
  • Improving corporate reporting on equality by obliging all organisations with 250 workers or more to annually disclose their pay by gender, ethnicity and disability; outline details of contracts issued and clearly state how they will tackle their gender pay gap
  • Reform Universal Credit to include a work allowance to ensure support for those moving into work and to protect those on low incomes or those who need to work part-time
  • Uprate Universal Credit in line with inflation and to improve living standards
  • Improve and increase provision of affordable childcare
  • Cover full childcare costs for those on Universal Credit
  • Consult with employers and parents on maternity, paternity and parental leave, reviewing entitlement and rates to ensure this aligns with parents’ ambitions

The briefing paper is available to read on the Work Foundation website:

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