The cost of being a woman

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The cost of being a woman
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The cost-of-living crisis continues to affect our finances, yet the impact is not felt equally.

The cost-of-living crisis emerges as yet another pressing challenge disproportionately affecting women. Like the pandemic, it serves to amplify the entrenched structural disparities experienced by women, rendering them vulnerable to its impacts. This jeopardises progress in advancing economic and social equality for women and sending it into reverse.

For International Women’s Day 2024, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Young Academy of Scotland brings a panel of experts from academia and practice to dissect this challenging topic. They will explore the historical context of systematic inequalities that persist today and some solutions required to address the imbalance, from workplaces to the law.

TRANSCRIPT

Please note transcripts are automatically generated, so may feature errors.

YVETTE:

Welcome, I’m Yvette Taylor. I’m a professor in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde. I’m currently working on a project on queer social justice. So to mark International Women’s Day, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Young Academy of Scotland have invited this panel of speakers. We’re discussing the cost of living crisis. Much like the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis risks exacerbating existing inequalities and stalling equalities work or indeed putting that into reverse. So welcome to colleagues. We’re joined by a cross-sector, interdisciplinary panel of experts who will delve deeper into gender inequalities and the cost of living crisis. So let’s start on my far left and work round with introductions.

JILLIAN:

Hello everyone. My name is Jillian Merchant. I’m a Solicitor Advocate, and a Partner in a civil litigation firm in Glasgow. My specialism is in employment law, focusing on discrimination and professional regulation. I’ve been working in this area for ten years and I’m also a member of the Young Academy of Scotland.

LYNN:

Hello, I’m Lynn Abrams. I’m the professor of modern history at the University of Glasgow. I’m an historian of gender relations, of the family, of child welfare, and feminism in the self

in modern Britain.


AGOMONI:

Hello, I’m Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra. I am a senior lecturer in bioethics and global health ethics at the Law School at the University of Edinburgh. And I’m particularly interested in ethics and health work at the intersection of health, gender, gender-justice, race equality and coloniality.

YVETTE:

Thank you. So Lynn, can you start us off with some historical context on gender and poverty?

LYNN:

Yeah thanks, Yvette. Well, I think there are structural and ideological reasons for why women historically have been disproportionately affected by poverty, and it’s really difficult

to untangle those two things, so I’m not really going to try and do that. But we can go, I think, right back to the 19th Century and the Poor Law, which really defined women as dependents, it didn’t regard them as independent subjects. Women were always defined in relation to husbands or fathers. Their poverty or their their economic situation was deemed to be ameliorated by the earnings of the breadwinner in the family. So that’s one of the main sort of underpinning inequalities I think that really has sort of, has really maintained until more recent times. And then, of course, the post-war welfare state, which in many ways was one of the most positive things that could happen in the 20th Century. But in the post-war welfare settlement women were also defined as dependents, particularly in relation to the marriage contract. So that really reified that situation whereby you have a breadwinner and a woman in the family, understood generally as a nuclear family, and women therefore undertaking the care role within that family. So the real problem there is is that women were not treated as independent. Married women in particular were not really treated as independent, and that they were regarded as economically dependent on men. And so social policies have tended to mirror sexual divisions. And then, of course, we have historical assumptions that the family should consist of a male breadwinner and a woman whose responsibility is to care for the home. But in modern times, much more recently, families look very different than they did, than they did when the welfare state was established. And then if we bring those two things together, the ideological and the structural, we find that women have very different, different – we have differential

access to the labour market. They tend to be paid less because they tend to be primary carers for children, but also other dependants in the family, so elderly members of the family or people with special needs, they tend to be part-time workers treated as more temporary workers. And then there are whole series of consequences that run from that, not just unequal pay, but differential access to better jobs and also lower pensions. So I think in a nutshell and a very broad brush, that’s the kind of historical background to where we are now.

YVETTE:

So we seem to be living the past in the present, I was pausing on how much has changed. So turning our attention to the present day, why is the cost of living crisis impacting on women in particular? And Agomoni, I might come to you first if that’s okay.

AGOMONI:

Yes, absolutely. So I think the cost of living is affecting everyone in society, but women in particular for various reasons, particularly because it is related to things like housing, things like the cost of food, the cost of heating. And so women are disproportionately affected in terms of being the primary carer, of ensuring that everybody’s got clothing and heating and food on their plates and so on.

YVETTE:

Great yeah, and I think the RSE report referred to them as the shock absorbers of poverty. Jillian, do you want to come in on that?

JILLIAN:

Yeah, I mean I think that reading that, it was just quite stark, just that as a metaphor for the reality of many women’s lives. And I think just following on from what people have already said, I mean part of the reason why this hurts women so badly is because of the position that they are, you know, in the labour market and you know, if you think about where

we started with Lynn’s background in relation to this, the reason why the workplace is so difficult for women is because it basically was that workplaces were made by men for men, because women were not particularly post childbearing age in the workplace. So the reality is not catching up with the sheer number of women in the workplace, in the reality of their lives you know, whether that be in the types of jobs that they’re in the pay that they receive for those jobs or just the general consideration that people give to those types of jobs. You mentioned the pandemic at the start. You know, those in care suffered

horrendously during the pandemic. They really had to fight to get their voices heard, they were the people that were caring for our most vulnerable in society. They were predominantly women workers and their bills, as has been already described, are going up exponentially. But the pay is not going up exponentially, despite the fact that they were the ones during the pandemic that were putting themselves at risk to go into people’s houses. And at the very start of the pandemic, you know, things that seem incredulous now like fighting to get face masks, that within a matter of months, we were all wearing on the bus. So I think that probably goes some way to telling, you know, to demonstrating where we are in terms of women’s place in the workplace and how that works into other structural inequalities.

YVETTE:

Do you find that we’re going from crisis to crisis now?

JILLIAN:

It certainly feels, it certainly feels a bit like that. And I think because, I think as of this morning, I think officially in a recession, it makes all these arguments really difficult because the really easy retort is always just ‘where’s the money coming from?’ And I think, and I think that does make it particularly difficult to think, to keep coming up with ever

increasingly creative solutions that don’t cost any money.

AGOMONI:

And it’s really important that you mention the the pandemic again because, as you said, women were disproportionately frontline workers. They were health care workers, social care workers. But at the same time, we know very well that women also have the double-shift at home in which they come back and then have to take care of the household. And so they’re sort of bearing the brunt both at work but also at home of these multiple crises that we’re in.


YVETTE:

And so far we’ve been talking about women as a group, but I think it’s also important to talk about differences amongst women, and this term intersectionality is sort of becoming more popular in terms of popular political discourse. Any thoughts on intersectionality and the crisis? Agomoni?

AGMONI:

So I think it’s worth spending a little bit of time sort of looking at the concept itself because I think often it’s a little diluted when it becomes mainstream. So the idea of intersectionality is very much that each of us are shaped by our association with various social groups, but also these social groups placed in various different contexts. So for example, it’s some,

it’s a different thing to be a woman of colour living in the UK versus a woman of colour of South Asian origin living in the Philippines or in Indonesia, for example. So the context becomes as important and the relationship of your social identity with the context is very, very important. And so as a result of these various memberships and how our identities are shaped, we are placed differentially in the structures of society and in terms of privileges, in terms of disadvantage. And so when we’re thinking about inequality, structural inequality, especially as you mentioned earlier, if we look at one axis of inequality, which is, for example, gender, we’re missing a big part of the picture. And so if we don’t look at what is called the intersection, and the term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was a legal race-theorist in the late 1980s. However, it’s been used by black feminist scholars for many years before that, and the importance of the term is, given that we’re specifically placed in connection to the structures of society, if we’re looking at inequality at one axis, instead of looking at the various ways in which the various axes of discrimination, of inequality, work together to put us in compounded inequalities, in magnified inequalities, but also really importantly in unique or distinct spaces of inequality, then we’re missing the picture and then we’re not addressing inequality as we should be.

YVETTE:

So we’ve talked about some of the categories of women as workers or as household members, as mothers perhaps, but also to nuance that it’s also always about say, race, class and so on.

LYNN:

Disability.

YVETTE:

Disability, thank you.

AGOMONI:

Immigrant status.

YVETTE:

Right, right. Thinking then about workplaces, are workplaces big enough, adaptable enough to deal with these intersectional gender inequalities then?

LYNN:

It’s really interesting, isn’t it, what you said about the workplace being created and designed, if you like, originally by men, well many, anyway. And what we seem to have done over the years, I guess is to make adjustments. To make, to make little adjustments along the way to make it kind of easier for women to enter the workplace, but not to kind of rethink the workplace so that it benefits actually everyone who works in that workplace, not, you know, not just help the women along. And the pandemic kind of gave us an opportunity to rethink the workplace. And it was in a pretty, pretty dramatic way. And now that is, some of that is being rolled back, I think. I don’t know what you think about that?

JILLIAN:

Yeah. I mean, I think like a lot of these things, you know, ‘what would make the workplace better?’ a lot of time just comes down to employers behaving a bit better. But obviously that is not something that is hugely you know like, and I probably fall on the cynical side from experience of, you know, unless there’s some specific obligation on employers to do something, a lot of employers won’t, there’s a huge differential between people that work in the public sector versus people that work in the you know, in the private sector

in terms of discretionary policies and things that make work a little bit easier. I mean, recently I was talking about the new Carers Act that’s coming in which will give time off,

statutory time off for carers and a lot of people will already have those types of provisions in their contracts of employment, but a lot of people won’t and a lot of people know that

the law is just that they won’t get paid, you know, they can take time off but they won’t get paid for it. The reality is a lot of women or indeed any carers won’t be able to afford taking a week off without any pay whereas some people will be in a more privileged position whereby they are in a workplace, where they’ve either got a contractual right to carer’s leave or at least they’ll get some sort of pay, you know, which is, you know, is a

problem across the board, including like maternity pay, parental leave, all these issues come, kind of, back to those same issues.

YVETTE:

Are there examples of good practices from your own workplaces, your institutions or your research participants, perhaps?

AGOMONI:

Well I think the University is an interesting place to work at in this context. And I absolutely mean ‘interesting’ in the British sense, but I think the kind of work we do as academic

is quite flexible, which is helpful. So you have some freedom to organise your time as you’d like, but at the same time, I think it’s interesting that you talked about, you know, the law and policies and unless we have policies and laws we can’t be sure that employers

will deliver on these. But of course, we can’t have a one-size-fits-all and we can’t have a, ‘as long as we treat everybody equally, we’re sorted’. Because, for example, the question of care, carers for a very long time had talked to their employers about things like working from home, flexible working, hybrid working and until the pandemic it was very much sort of that, ‘That’s not possible. That is just not possible. We don’t have those kinds of provisions.’ And then the pandemic came about and everyone, lots of men, for example, were working from home and suddenly hybrid working was possible. And so it’s a question of also recognising that the different things that people need will, in fact, as you said earlier, benefit everyone. And perhaps we should pay attention to them early on.

YVETTE:

Now, many institutions do have equality, diversity and inclusion policies. Are these simply rhetorical or can they be mobilised?

LYNN:

I think it’s probably in an organisation like a university, you know, there is more action. But in small companies in, as you say, in the private sector, I think it’s you know, the pattern is much more patchy probably.

AGOMONI:

Yeah. Yeah, I also think, I think adding on from that, I think equality, diversity and inclusion is extremely important. But again, it can’t be just rhetoric, as you said. And also you have to take into account different kinds of burdens. So for example, as a minoritised staff

within the university, I’ll often get asked to be on certain committees, on panels and so on. And with that comes what we call the burden of representation and representation fatigue, which is not necessarily then reflected in policies in terms of, then promotions and so on, right? Because when you come to promotion papers or when you come to research allowances and so on, everybody has to be treated equally, but nobody is then sort of attending to the fact that you did all this other labour, for example, of representation within the university that is then not accounted for in the sort of, the benefits that you get from it.

YVETTE:

Absolutely, and I think women, of course, are not just workers and when you remind us of some of the ways that women have been forgotten of working in the home, for example, but I think feminism has long been critiqued as only for by of middle-class white women as able to partake in these kind of promotional structures and equal opportunities, for example.

JILLIAN:

Yeah, and I – you know, I think the reality is when you’re talking about different employers’ policies and quite a lot of, you see quite a lot of the big companies now offering like, a year’s paid maternity leave or different sets of things. But the reality is for working-class women, a lot of them just need to get a job that fits around looking after their children or fits around caring for elderly relatives. And the reality is it’s not going to be something where they’re worrying about what extra policies on the side might be good or bad. And it’s about experiences and equal opportunity of experiences, like if people are really struggling to get into the labour market for whatever reason, whether it be they’ve taken time out to care for children or indeed elderly people, they’ve been studying, it’s really difficult to get back into the workplace at any point. And then a lot of it’s about, then you’re kind of starting again and you’re struggling and those, being in and out, the workplace being across different jobs in low paid sectors, the reality of, you know, whether or not

you can take some time off or work at home is actually not something that is open to everyone. I think the pandemic has been great in that all of these people, you know, a lot of people can work at home now. It’s shown that flexible working can work in a way that before it was very blinkered and as you say, it was just like, ‘oh no, we can’t possibly do that’. But reality is now we have quite a clear split of middle-class people and if we’re talking about women, women who can work at home and working-class women whose jobs by their very nature mean that they can’t work at home. And I do worry about there

being a reckoning there and how that how that will play out, because I feel like you get into, almost into a kind of two-tier society and obviously that’s not helpful for social cohesion in any event.

LYNN:

I mean look at the care sector. You can’t care –

JILLIAN:

… or clean, is the one I always use.

LYNN:

Maybe you can when they start to bring in you know, remote care over computers. but let’s hope that that doesn’t happen. I was recently made aware of some research regarding working-class women who were just juggling so many jobs because no one job was going to give them enough money because they couldn’t get enough hours. So juggling jobs, juggling childcare or dependent care, trying to make that work with universal credit, complete and utter nightmare in terms of one’s mental health and trying to keep on top of the bills as well. So really difficult. And child, we haven’t mentioned childcare yet, really. I mean, childcare is just such a major, major, particularly when children are young but also at school age when you know, when wraparound care is now being is now falling apart because local authorities are withdrawing funding. So there’s a whole series, aren’t there, of –

JILLIAN:

– Continuing

LYNN:

– continuing and building factors that are just making it really difficult I suppose, particularly perhaps for single parents as well.

YVETTE:

I wanted to maybe pass to you Agomoni, in terms of this idea of the working-class worker maybe globalising that picture a bit more.

AGOMONI:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really important. It was very frustrating during the pandemic to to hear sort of a politician in the mainstream media talk about you know, ‘the economy has stopped and we have to keep the economy going’. The economy never stopped, right? The economy continued to depend on essential workers, on frontline workers,

many of whom are immigrant workers, also workers of colour, so racialised and minoritised people bore the brunt of the pandemic because they were at the front, a forefront of the virus and of work. And so I think here is where the intersectional analysis is very, very important. And when you talk about class and then class and race and so on, and if you’re an immigrant person working in the UK, for example, as a woman you might have had

childcare and you might have had, you might be living in multigenerational households. So you have care of the elderly as well without necessarily having the back up or the fallback option of having, sort of lots of family and friends around where you can sort of, you know, park your child when they’re sick and then still go to work. So you had to decide between

whether to stay at home, care for your elderly mother in law or child, or go to work. And those are impossible decisions to be making. And then you have other issues when it comes to things like immigration status, women fleeing particularly violent home situations, for example, often immigrant women, women who are on a dependent visa on spousal visas, will have no recourse to public funds, which means that even if they decide to leave, which is hard enough in the first place, they will then not have the backing of the state in order for them to be able to stand on their feet, to go to a refuge to get the support that they need. So there are so many intersections and so many levels at which I think we’re failing women if we are not attending to the very specific needs and the lived experiences of those who are facing it.

YVETTE:

Yeah, and I think we’ve all been pointing out the intergenerational potential lifelong effects including into pension years. Any thoughts on how those effects continue across a life course?

JILLIAN:

I mean, I think you’re right, Lynn, in terms of what you said about, you know, my particular hobbyhorse at the moment, as like a mother of two young kids, is that, you know, it’s difficult when you return to work from maternity leave because you’ve got to put your kids into nursery. That’s got a huge cost if you’re working or if you don’t have family close by, you know, which I don’t. And a lot of women at that point will return to work part-time or in reality will just not return to work because, you know, private childcare is very expensive. And a lot of people take the view that, you know, they would rather spend that time with their children rather than work for nothing. You know, and then we do have a provision at the moment where children get free hours by the time they’re three. However, by that time, if someone’s been out of the labour market, that’s four years of being out of the labour market and it makes it very, very difficult to get back in, for all you know, all the reasons

that I’ve already alluded to. And then I think, as you said Lynn, and then the challenges that are at school and then the school hours are obviously not compatible with any description of a working day. And they do have to have – you know, again, it’s relying on relatives, relying on friends or if you’re lucky, there might be some sort of standardised kind of, round the clock before and after school type assistance. And then I suppose, as you know, as, as children get older and women get older, they then do – and I think this is probably going to be the first significant generation of women to have managed to make it in the workplace, but also still be juggling those those caring burdens for your children. But as we get older, we will all have our caring responsibilities for our elderly parents. And I think that is, it does feel when you think about it like that, that it’s it’s just kind of more and more things to think about, things to do. And then as your children get older, obviously you want them to do as well as they can. And then I almost feel like, you know, if you think of it, by the time your children are leaving school, you want them to be in a better financial position than you were when you left school. And I’m just not sure that that’s actually possible now in a way that twenty or thirty years ago, certainly people would have hoped that that was the case. I know that my parents would have always wanted that for me, but I don’t know that we can guarantee that for our children now in a way that previous generations could.

LYNN:

And if we roll back a bit of thinking about the long term effects, I mean, if you can’t get back into work, you’re not paying into your company’s pension scheme if there is a pension scheme. So, you know, your pension contributions are going to be much reduced. There is already a massive pension gap, a massive gender pension gap in this country with lots of elderly women really just scraping by, if that. And that really is not being remedied, I think so that’s a really long term, long term problem that we’re not really dealing with. And as you get older, you need your heating on more. And this is a cold country.

[Laughs]

AGOMONI:

And the dependance on pension, I mean, as an immigrant, for example, coming from an extremely privileged position I’ve now paid into I think, five different countries’ pension schemes, right? So by the time I actually reach retirement age here, I will not have the kind of pot that others might in that context, but also in a context where, you know, there is less and less money spent on things like social welfare, it becomes very problematic

as you grow older. And also we also know that there is a close interaction between social inequalities and social determinants of health and health inequalities. And what we have up to the pandemic is I think of quite a massive public health issue. Lots of people with long term chronic illness, long Covid and other associated issues. So we have a workforce that’s come back tired and exhausted and with the immense burden of trying to sort of, pick up where they had left, except that, you know, they’re so far back. And then we will then have this generation arriving at retirement age with the existing pension gap potentially with no pension at all, I don’t know. But by the time we retire, there will be a pension, but also no social welfare to fall back on, which is, you know, quite a tragic situation, I think.

YVETTE:

So given these harsh realities that we’re all pointing to and given that it’s an election year,

do you have any expectations, hopes that actually will be promised in party manifestos? What are you hoping to see from political parties?

JILLIAN:

I’ll go first. I mean, these are not going to be by any political party because they cost lots of money. But in an absolute dream world, I would go for an increase in statutory maternity pay but also a complete revolution of parental leave, meaning that it’s extended, say from 12 months currently to maybe 18 months. But six months of that has to be taken by the other parent so that, you know, for me, the only way you’re ever going to tackle the inequity in the workplace for women of childbearing age, if you want to use that description, is if men are as likely to take time off as women are. And for me, making that some sort, not taking away the leave that women have at the moment and appreciating the leave that women have at the moment is not well enough paid. You know, I would argue that that has to be dealt with first. But as a second, as a second follow up to that would be that that the other parent can take time off as well because, you know, otherwise, women are always going to face, you know, time out of work discrimination during the period of time where they’re considered that they might be going off and for me, that’s the one thing that would revolutionise the workplace.

LYNN:

Well I’d second that, but I won’t repeat you. So I was thinking about this, I think, I think local authorities have had to pull back on their funding of all of those things that make women’s  lives easier in the last few years as local authority budgets have really been placed under pressure. And we’re at that moment, we’re at a really critical moment now as wraparound care is reduced, transportation is reduced. For people living in rural areas that is really difficult if you can’t even get a bus, you know, to go and pick up your kids. Libraries are being closed. All of those things that local authorities actually are responsible for are beginning to be pulled away, or the rugs being pulled under people’s feet and they’re not they’re not the kind of headline things, but actually they’re the things that make people’s lives doable.


YVETTE:

The everyday.

LYNN:

Yeah.

AGOMONI:

Yeah I think, again, seconding everything you’ve said and also emphasising, I mean the cost of childcare in this country is huge. We moved here from Belgium and started paying what we paid for an entire month of childcare in a week, right? So the cost of childcare is, the differences are huge between countries. So that’s something to think about. I think there has to be and again, both of you pointed at this is there has to be an entire overhaul of the social welfare system from, you know, health to transport to everything that we really need to seriously think about. But also starting very early on with an intersectional perspective, which is to say, even before we start asking the questions, even before we start collecting the data, we have to take an approach that understands that one size will not fit all and to understand the lived experience of inequality that various people face and to even gather data first to know which questions to ask in the first place, let alone then develop policies that will be actually be suitable for different people and will be received

and accessed and in an equitable manner.

YVETTE:

I might add in my own political push, which would be to properly resource the third sector that’s often tasked up with doing equalities work and for me personally, a commitment to LGBTQ+ identities and realities, whether that’s LGBT-inclusive curriculum or expecting the every day to be free of hate crime and for making legal recognition easier for trans people, in particular in Scotland. So thinking about gender is structural, but also personal and embodied. So thank you for your time. And I guess we’ve talked about many challenges and the complexity, the cost of living crisis, both financially but also emotionally. And we’ve talked about some groups that been more impacted than others and sometimes facing crisis as a long term and enduring reality, unfortunately. But as well as challenges, I think we can look to some signs of hope or positive, collective action, whether that’s ambition for policy reforms, for housing reforms, for supporting our communities and for activating our workplace rights. So let’s continue these conversations in our communities, families and workplaces and crucially at the ballot box in the coming year. So thanks to our speakers for sharing and thanks to the audience, and I would encourage you to stay engaged and involved and to act as allies in challenging gender inequalities for a more sustainable and equitable future. Thank you.