International Women’s Day: why we need equity to end precarity

By Emma McClelland - 08 March 2023

Today is International Women's Day (IWD), a globally recognised event that puts women's achievements - and the hurdles they must jump to realise them - into the spotlight. Each year, IWD chooses a 'theme' to help people focus on a specific element of gender equality. This year, that theme is 'equity'. The following post shares our perspective on equity, as a charity that supports disadvantaged women and tackles injustice in a multitude of forms. 

What is equity?

They sound similar, but equality and equity are not the same. The difference in their meanings is captured in the IWD's mission statement for this year; driving worldwide understanding of "why equal opportunities aren't enough". Equality, in a nutshell, refers to a circumstance where people are given the same opportunities or resources. Equity, however, recognises that each person (or group of people) has different circumstances and, instead, allocates the exact opportunities or resources they need to reach an equal outcome. 

How does lack of equity affect our beneficiaries?

Since 8 March 2022 (last year's IWD), our advisers have helped over 700 women with issues spanning immigration, employment rights, social welfare and employability. The majority of these women are single mothers, working part-time in an attempt to balance work and family life. Almost every day we see how a lack of equity hinders their ability to improve their professional mobility, personal wellbeing and capacity to support themselves and their families. 

One of the most obvious examples is the devastating combination of inflexible working practices and expensive childcare. According to research from the thinktank Centre for Progressive Policy, every year, women in the UK provide 23.2bn hours of unpaid childcare care worth an estimated £382bn, while men provide 9.7bn worth £160bn. This demonstrates how caring responsibilities still disproportionately affect women. 

But why is this happening? The UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world, according to the OECD. Childcare costs for low-income couples, where one parent earns minimum wage, and the other an estimated 24,000/year, take up a whole 40% of the family's monthly income. Every week our advisers hear from women who have resigned themselves to domestic responsibilities because paying for childcare is more expensive than what they would earn. If caring responsibilities are falling heavily on women's shoulders then equity would mean giving them more support, as this is clearly needed in order for them to achieve the same quality of life and livelihood as their male counterparts. 

What happens when gender and immigration status collide?

The burden of caregiving also feeds into the next inequitable area we frequently come up against: social welfare. Many of our beneficiaries are migrants, with status under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), which came into force after freedom of movement ended, apparently with the aim of helping EU nationals to secure their rights in a post-Brexit Britain. For female migrants with pre-settled status (one of two statuses provided by the EUSS), Universal Credit is not a level playing field. 

The DWP requires claimants with pre-settled status to prove an additional 'right to reside' to qualify for means-tested benefits like UC. Benefits administrators tend to look at a claimant's history of 'genuine and effective' employment when deciding whether to grant them Universal Credit (if there is not an illness or disability). This means that many of those who work precariously in the gig economy, and who lack the formalities or regular work hours to prove a history of 'genuine and effective' employment, are excluded from Universal Credit. The same is true of single parents of very young children, and those who become destitute as a result of domestic or intimate-partner violence (and thus would struggle to affirm their eligibility for benefits on the basis of a family relation). 

This approach also puts women at a disadvantage since unpaid caring responsibilities often prompt breaks in employment. Female EU nationals living in the UK are more likely than their male counterparts to do unpaid, low-paid or informal work, which - in turn - risks them being excluded from 'worker' status. As Benjamin Morgan, Research and Communications Coordinator at the Public Interest Law Centre, argued in a previous blog post, co-written with the Work Rights Centre and other organisations: "Paid work done by women may be more likely to be assessed as 'ancillary and marginal' rather than 'genuine and effective'." Thus, women are - yet again - put at a disadvantage.

What would equity look like for our beneficiaries?

  • Encouraging employers to embrace equity 

The best employers work hard to create an equal and equitable environment for all of their workers, regardless of gender. Often, they achieve this by making flexibility a part of their company culture and making efforts to normalise it. They also assess their policies with an eye on equity, particularly when it comes to parental leave. Employers looking to become more equitable should ask themselves whether their parental leave policy encourages or discourages men to take on caring roles. 

  • Social welfare support for women with pre-settled status

While claiming income-based benefits is harder for people with pre-settled status, it is their right to do so. The DWP has a duty to assess their claims carefully, including the risk that without benefits they fall into destitution. For us as advisers - and other organisations providing similar services - the best thing we can do for women with pre-settled status who are struggling to access the benefits they need is to know when to challenge refusals through mandatory reconsideration requests or, where appropriate, appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal (Social Security and Child Support), as well as where to find alternative sources of support. 

  • Transforming the UK's childcare system 

We have broken down the government's current childcare support initiatives on our website. Currently, all children are entitled to 15 hours per week of funded childcare from the term after they turn three. For the poorest 40% of families, as well as for vulnerable children, the 15-hour entitlement starts at age two. Both of these allowances could be expanded, and funding could also be considered to increase the availability of after-school clubs, giving primary carers, often women, more breathing space to balance work and family responsibilities. 

But, ultimately, it is not small, piecemeal improvements that are needed, but a complete overhaul of the system. Childcare plays a vital role in the economy, enabling more people to work, which in turn has a huge impact on their independence, social mobility and wellbeing, and on the lives of their families. To quote Labour MP Stella Creasy: "We need the government to act and make balancing work and family life a reality for everyone, not just those who can afford it."

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