What are your first thoughts when you read the words “working class women”?
Class is an interesting subject here in the UK, with many people saying they don’t know what it is. But working-class people know, and we feel every clumsy, prejudicial comment that comes our way, like “working-class means uneducated”. The run-up to this election was certainly painful as we were confronted with our PM’s thoughts on the working classes.
But of course, there are divisions within classes – we are not a homogenous mass – and one of those divisions is gender.
In our organisation we talk about working with the women left behind – the women who do not get their voices heard at the policy table, meaning their needs are not addressed. This is partly historical as the labour movement focused on men as bread winners, and to a large degree still puts men’s needs higher than women’s, despite that family dynamic being somewhat outdated now.
Preparing for a talk in the summer I researched the rather topical gender pay gap. The good news was the gap between men and women is generally decreasing. Also the gap between the highest paid men and lowest paid men has narrowed as traditional male skills are in short supply. However, the gap between the UK’s highest paid women and lowest paid women has significantly increased.
While our attention on gender equality has been focused on the glass ceiling, traditional women’s labour remains undervalued. One of the women from our business skills programme set up a cleaning company. Cleaners are in big demand as more and more professional women seek a work-life balance, but she is noticing a lack of respect for the excellent service they deliver. We suspect this is partly due to it being seen as women’s work and therefore not valued. And so, the cycle continues.
One of the consequences of this is growing in-work poverty. Statistics tell us we have low unemployment, but in reality there has been an increase in low paid insecure work that unemployed people have to accept, but which traps them in poverty. For women, regardless of their skills, if they are unemployed, they are regularly pushed into caring and cleaning. Oddly, the high demand has not forced up wages.
For me, the hardest things about this practice is that even though we know we have a skills shortage, those who find themselves unemployed are not encouraged to explore or use their skills, which seems wasteful and short sighted.
With a priority of getting people working, we may think we do not have the luxury of fitting skills to vacancies. But those are just policy decisions.
Back in 2014, the government backed a plan to increase female representation on FTSE 100 boards to 25 per cent within four years. That was no small task as there was considerable resistance, and yet that target was achieved within three years. If we can do that, we can also turn our attention to changing the situation for our lowest paid women, right? We can never claim gender equality while we leave so many women behind, trapped in poverty. But perhaps even more important is the impact it has on communities and future generations.
Interestingly, addressing this does not require huge resource. We run session courses with women who are not economically active, and the results astonish even me. Knowing that getting attention in small groups for just 15 hours can turn their lives around makes me wonder – what is it really that is stopping us investing in working class women?