In the mid 1980’s I undertook a PhD study that examined the role and impact of technology on the retail sector. Difficult to imagine now, but for those of us old enough to remember, that was in the early days of bar codes and the use of scanning systems at checkouts. PC’s worked on DOS and iPads, macs and iPhones were still a vision waiting to become reality. Mobile phones didn’t exist and online shopping wasn’t even dreamt of.
My work examined how skills and employment patterns of female workers could be impacted within the UK supermarket sector. It tested the hypothesis that the growth of technology could lead to upskilling, greater job satisfaction, higher earnings and enhanced career opportunities for women. My belief was that technology would also improve productivity and business performance and enhance the customer experience. A win-win-win scenario for women, technology and business.
Fast forward thirty years, today technology has advanced beyond even what leading futurologists where predicting at that time. Service and retail employment has continued to grow, business performance and management information and reporting systems have improved, technology is now embedded in not only how we do business and how we shop but also in how we interact and communicate with each other. The speed and growth of technology and its application has been phenomenal.
Last year, I undertook an independent Review into the “Role and Contribution of Women to the Scottish Economy” and revisited many of my earlier predictions. The evidence was staggering. The benefits and advancements that seemed so obvious had not manifested themselves in improvements in earnings, increased skills or enhanced career opportunities for many working women, particularly those working in the retail and service sectors. A sector that still remains dominated by low pay, low skills, part time working and a lack of women in management and senior roles. But even more disappointing was the fact that women across many other industry sectors, including those in self-employment, have faired equally badly in this period and have not achieved the career and earnings benefits predicted to accompany technology growth.
Specifically, looking at data from the mid 1990’s, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings has remained relatively consistent at around £100 (ONS 2015) and the Fawcett Society estimate that women still make up the majority of those in low paid work, 63% of people earning £7 per hour or less. Evidence also shows that for every £1 a man takes home, a woman takes home 85p, this equates to women working for free for two months of the year compared to a man. This gap in earnings becomes even more pronounced when women have children and get older. Within Scotland, the gender pay gap averages at 17% but can be as high as 40% in the Legal and Professional Services sector and 23% in the Construction industry.
And gender also impacts those in self-employment. In terms of business start-ups, if women set up businesses in Scotland as the same rate as men this would add £13 billion to the Scottish economy or the equivalent of over 100,000 new businesses.
The reasons for these gaps include a heady cocktail of social, economic and cultural factors including; flexible working, access to affordable child care, educational and skills levels, the size of companies where many women work and access to finance for many female business start-ups.
Closing the pay gap will go some way to addressing the structural inequalities that many women face in the workplace. Under new Pay Gap legislation announced by the UK Government in February 2016, companies and voluntary organisations with over 250 employees (approximately 8,000 across the UK) will now be required to publish pay gap information on their web sites, showing the number of men and women in each pay range.
But to achieve full workplace equality and to ensure women compete on an even playing field in the workplace we need to also take action to ensure we broaden the skills base and career choices particularly for younger women, encourage and support the introduction of flexible working policies and the equal sharing of family responsibilities. In addition, we need to recognise and value the contribution of women’s work to the economy, home and society.
Today, more than at any other point over this thirty-year period I feel optimistic about the future for generations of women. Driven by a change in attitudes, cultures and behaviours and supported by legislative and policy measures as a society we now recognise that we need to address many deep rooted barriers that impact women in education, at work, in the home and running their own businesses. Do I think the next thirty years will see progress on all these fronts and the fair sharing of the benefits that technology can bring, absolutely. Do I think women of all ages, all skill levels, across all sectors and in every region of the UK will finally work, live, and contribute to a fairer and equal society? A resounding yes. But it will need a continued focus and drive from us all to achieve it.
Dr Lesley Sawers