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Fixing the gender jobs split: are we starting from the right end?

Brendan Martin and Olivia Bryanne Zank, 7 November 2013

Public World is working with the Hub Launchpad to learn from the experience of home care workers in Britain and internationally.

The aim is to innovate in ways that would improve quality of service and productivity through better jobs with higher pay and status.

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A report published last week by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) makes sobering reading for anyone concerned about ending all forms of unfair gender discrimination.

Written for the TUC by Ian Brinkley, Katy Jones and Neil Lee of the Work Foundation, The Gender Jobs Split: How young men and women experience the labour market is based on analysis of the UK’s Quarterly Labour Force Surveys.

It draws out several empirical trends in employment for 16 to 24-year-olds, and particularly striking are the data on occupational segmentation.

While young people of both sexes are more likely than 20 years ago to go into ‘elementary occupations’, such as cleaning, and less likely to go into jobs defined as ‘administrative and secretarial’, the tendency for young men to enter 'skilled trades' while young women go into 'personal service occupations' is even more marked than in 1993.

A closer look behind those broad categories of 'skilled trades' and 'personal service occupations' shows that men still dominate in construction, vehicle maintenance, plumbing and engineering, while women are in hairdressing; children’s care, learning and development; beauty therapy; and health and social care.

That does indeed mean that young women tend to be over-represented in apprenticeships with lower pay and worse career progression compared to young men, but look again at those occupations: are they really less skilled, intrinsically?

“These gender differences have some important implications,” notes the report, with some understatement. “If young men and women enter occupations with different pay and prospects, this may entrench inequality of opportunity and the gender pay gap.”

Indeed, but that is why it is unfortunate that the report fails to explore the possibility that its  classification of occupations is itself gendered, and that the definition of 'skilled trades' drawn from the Labour Force Survey is perpetuating the very inequalities highlighted in the report.

Take social care, for instance. Its mainly female workforce is low paid and precariously employed. Many among the 1.5m people in that sector earn less than national minimum wage and most are on zero-hours contracts or fake self-employment.

Their work is also often referred to as low-skilled -- and is certainly excluded from the 'skilled trades' category -- but we all know that quality home care is not only highly skilled but highly demanding of a range of aptitudes.

The problem is that, although social and child care, hairdressing and other sectors with female over-representation may require just as much skill as construction, vehicle mechanics and other male-dominated sectors, those skills are less highly valued.

This not only leads to a pay gap but may also mean that the extent and quality of the training available is also lower, with the circular result that many in those sectors are indeed less skilled than they need to be to produce the quality of service we all want.

The reasons for gendered occupational segmentation are complex, and do indeed pose challenges. But perhaps we need to address the skills, pay and career progression problem from the other end. Indeed, if we raise the status of those vital 'personal service occupations' perhaps more young men will want to do them!

  • Brendan Martin is managing director and Olivia Bryanne Zank a researcher at Public World.
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