Oxfam written evidence (Tackling gender discrimination)

Oxfam welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Commission on Human Rights. This is an important area of work, and one in which Oxfam is involved in a variety of ways. We will provide two separate submissions covering different aspects of our work. This submission will focus on gender discrimination in the UK and will address the following points that the commission is seeking evidence on:

1.    What are the barriers women face in employment and how can these be mitigated?

2.    How can we reduce the gender pay gap?


Despite positive trends in growing rates of female employment and earnings, gender inequality remains ever apparent within the labour market. This is demonstrated by continuing lower formal employment rates amongst women and the persistence of a gender pay gap as female weekly earnings remain less than 70% of men’s weekly earnings37. Further still, increases in employment and earnings often do not provide financial stability or routes out of poverty for those women at the bottom end of the labour market. Instead challenges to gender equality are often perpetuated by additional misgivings found in the labour market and limitations to the social security system. These include limited progression opportunities in low paid work, gaps in labour rights and low levels of unionisation in low paid jobs, together with a childcare infrastructure that offers limited flexibility for parents and a social security system that focuses on work incentives without effectively supporting sustainable routes out of poverty. Combined these factors limit the extent and rate to which gender equality can be realised.

In 2015 25% of women were in low pay (for men this rate was 15%), which is defined as earning less than two-thirds of the Great Britain median hourly wage rate excluding bonuses: a value of £7.87 in 201538. Overall, women make up 62% of low paid employees and in 2015 four in ten low paid employees were women working part-time39. As such, women are benefitting from the introduction of the Government’s National Living Wage, which is expected to speed up the reduction of the gender pay gap by one fifth40. The widespread adoption of the (voluntary) Living Wage, if pioneered by local and national governments, would speed up this reduction further still. However, to work towards a labour market that works for women, employees and the economy it will be vital to go beyond low pay.

Typically low paid jobs offer limited opportunities for progression or shallow increases in pay for disproportionate increases in responsibility. This becomes even more apparent in highly feminised low paid sectors such as retail and childcare and opportunities to progress or train are further limited for those in part-time work. In order to support those out of low pay, job designs need to be remodelled to offer pay progression, job mobility and opportunities for training. To be effective and reflect the needs of modern society job designs should also offer flexibility for both work patterns and training opportunities.

Equally, apprenticeships are not providing women with progression routes into high paid employment and often mirror the gender inequality found within the labour market as a whole. Apprenticeships in high paid industries are disproportionately made up by male apprentices41, too few apprenticeships offer part-time options and both childcare and material support vary with Local Authorities. Widening accessibility and targeting advertisements at women alongside 50:50 targets on high paid sector apprenticeship would support the training of the future workforce whilst simultaneously promoting gender equality.

Women also experience more barriers when accessing the labour market. Regardless of qualification level women have lower rates of employment than their male counter-parts, but this disparity widens as the qualification level falls. The employment rate for those with an NVQ2 to NVQ4+ is six or seven percentage points higher for men than women. For those with no qualifications the male employment rate is 16 percentage points higher42. Equally, finding work does not offer security or stability. Women make up 56% of those on zero hour contracts and nearly two fifths of those on zero hour contracts are made up of women in low pay. In this instance employment rights should be strengthened with steps towards scraping zero hour contracts in order to ensure sources of employment provide stability. Current rights also need to be secured and workers provided with affordable and equal access to tribunals. As it stands the introduction of tribunal fees has seen a decline in those pursuing disputes over holiday and pay and women increasingly less likely to pursue cases of sexual discrimination and pregnancy discrimination43.

Further to these challenges caring responsibilities remain a significant barrier to women when entering or progressing within work. If women are to gain equal access to the labour market affordable and flexible childcare remains vital for women to pursue training opportunities and job mobility.

Policy responses

There is a strong case for a more gender focussed employment strategy. This would involve policy giving greater attention to the position of women in low paying jobs. There is an emerging UK government agenda on which we can build to develop a clear strategy for improving the position of women in the labour market. For example, policies in the areas of childcare and gender pay gap reporting have the potential to be improved so that they have a greater impact of labour market gender inequalities.

Additionally there are a number of existing policy areas that could more explicitly have a gender approach, such as apprenticeships and social security reform. Incorporating policy in these areas into a wider gender focussed employment strategy that explicitly aims to reduce the proportion of women in low paid jobs, close the gender pay gap, improve job security and increase opportunities for women to progress in work would help address poverty and inequality and boost living standards.

Oxfam can provide more information and policy suggestions for all of these areas, however, the scope for written evidence doesn’t allow it. Should the commission be interested in further detail, Oxfam would be happy to provide it.

What Oxfam is doing to support women in the labour market

Oxfam has been delivering programmes in the UK, supporting people in poverty and working to reduce it. One such example is Oxfam’s ‘Future Skills’ programme which is supporting marginalised women into employment. The Future Skills programme works with women experiencing poverty who are also asylum seekers and refugees, from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, homeless or at risk of homelessness, domestic abuse survivors, have few or no formal qualifications or who may suffer with poor mental health. These women are some who are furthest from the labour market and may struggle with interactions with employment services such as the Jobcentre Plus.

Participants are recruited by referrals from local food banks, women’s organisations, refugee community organisations, and other community groups. Staff and volunteers at these organisations identify suitable candidates and support the women to apply to the programme.

The programme provides volunteer placements in Oxfam’s shop network of over 650 shops nationwide. Participants receive a six month placement, working for a minimum of eight hours per week. During this time, the women receive in-shop training in retails skills such as creating window displays, financial management, and customer services. Outside of the shop, participants work with a professional mentor to gain confidence and to plan their personal and professional development path. The women develop their social skills and networks of friends by engaging with shop staff, other volunteers and customers. This is a vital part of the project since many of the participants, especially asylum seekers and refugees, are very isolated and lonely. Stronger social networks help women to be more confident in speaking English and be a part of the local community.

The programme provides women, who are quite far from the labour market, opportunities to gain skills and confidence which enable them to work their way out of poverty through finding paid employment. It also provides them with opportunities to become more connected to their communities and to feel like they are valued and have something to give back.

Jackie’s story 

“I’ve learnt new skills, and rediscovered some I thought I’d lost. Most importantly, I smile, and I laugh again. I’ve got my confidence back.”

A year ago Jackie’s marriage broke down. With just a bag with a few clothes and kids’ toys, she and her two young children moved to Manchester.

“The morning we moved into the new house it suddenly hit me: we had no money and no food. I had to turn to the local food bank.”

With her new skills and vastly improved confidence, Jackie finally landed a job. Her dream is to be able to help other women rebuild their lives.