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Levelling up needs to embrace a broader range of issues and include a gendered lens, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday.
Investment in infrastructure in its broadest sense – including childcare and other forms of support needed to access employment – is a vital component of levelling up, a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday.
Professor Jill Rubery, Executive Director of the Work and Equalities Institute at Manchester University, said the Government’s focus on the infrastructure needed for levelling up has been too narrow. It is not just about physical infrastructure such as roads, but about the support and services needed to access employment, she stated, adding that “childcare is as important as roads and transport”.
She said the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds needs to be made available to parents who are not in work as well as those who are because the current rules make it very difficult for people to move from unemployment into work, particularly in lower paid jobs where those roles are less likely to be held open until childcare is secured.
Professor Rubery also called for more flexible childcare, including wraparound care which tends to be easier to find in more affluent areas. And she said there was an absence of a gender lens when it comes to transport, although women tend to use public transport more than men. She cited research showing women make a third more bus journeys than men. Nevertheless, the toolkit on levelling up transport doesn’t mention gender, she said.
Another issue is flexible working. Calling for more flexible working for face to face roles, Professor Rubery said the focus on remote working during Covid risks widening the equality gap between women. She added that technology in the form of self-management systems could help as could moving to more predictable hours [for childcare reasons], giving greater notice of hours and providing guaranteed hours. Another key to levelling up is to address low pay in the public sector and to ensure upskilling programmes do not exclude women, she stated.
Professor Rubery added that there is a danger when looking at the data on gender equality and levelling up that we think there is not such a big problem as the gaps tend to be bigger in wealthier areas. This is because men have more opportunity to find high quality jobs in wealthier areas whereas women tend to have low opportunities across the board. Yet, if men’s earnings are lower on average in poorer areas women’s earnings become more important, said Professor Rubery. Also, women are more limited in terms of their ability to travel out of their region for work.
Professor Christopher Warhurst from the Warwick Institute for Employment Research spoke about the need to embed employment – and its gendered nature – into the levelling up agenda, given good quality jobs have the ability to raise productivity, reduce welfare dependency and help those with health issues back to work while the geographical concentration of lower skilled jobs widens inequality between the regions.
He called for local regions to be given control over skills and training; for a focus on better quality work through, for instance, employment charters aimed at raising standards, backed by the necessary resources, and for a joined up approach to employment built on partnerships between local government, civil society and business, including SMEs.