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The Aspects of Gender Equality Policy in the UK in Relation to Employment and Childcare

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Over the last 40 years, UK government and policy makers have been focused on gender equality, as a rather recent phenomenon as we migrate into modern society. With the UK behind many European countries in achieving equality, as issues of monopsony override policies that are attempted to be implemented. Nancy fraser (1994) proposes models of gender equality which are suggest ways in which policy makers should use to adapt and ensure a gender equal society taking various different factors into account. Gender equality is directly linked with women’s involvement in the labour market, which they are restricted in due to domestic duties of childcare. This essay is going to discuss what is meant by gender equality/inequality, and through the lens of Frasers models evaluate legislation post industrialisation in the 1970’s with the rise of feminism. I will explore policies proposed by New Labour and weigh up if they have been successful in ensuring gender equality today, by erasing traditional gender roles in the employment and childcare realm. Arguably, whilst there has been progression of equality through policies, this has been on the surface. Policies can be seen to be ineffectively implemented, and whilst there has been evidence of change, gender parity is far from being achieved. Undoubtedly, gender equality has played a role in shaping policies around employment and childcare, however it had not moulded it entirely. Only in the last 20 years, under New Labours government policies, has there been a slight direct emphasis on gender equality explicitly.

For decades, the UK has occupied a male breadwinner and female carer model due to men and women conforming to stereotypical gender forms (Price, 2006:31) – within their marriage partnerships and the labour force. However recent progressions have seen these traditional models disintegrating as there has been an increase in modern family types (e.g. lone parents) and an increase of women’s participation in the labour force; as society is becoming more gender equal. Traditional scholars believe that these stereotypical functions were due to distinctive innate differences between males and females, however it was questioned whether these ideas were biological or physical as society became more advanced. Cultural differences also played a role in how gender roles were seen, as caregiving was seen as a feminine task in western society (Paquette, 2004).

However, contrary to popular scholar belief, the evidence they use is nothing more than social norms. Nevertheless, previous policy reinforced these stereotypes for example through The Family Wage. This blind sighted society in to thinking that policy makers were ensuring equality, however it instead reinforced gender roles in confirming that the male bredwinner should make a sufficient amount of money to support his family, thus making women inferior to men. The policy was greatly opposed by feminists as they believed that the wage has detrimental effects on society as a whole as it ‘inscribed the structure of most industrial era welfare state’ (Fraser, 1994:251). With inequalities in the previous Conservative government becoming clear, Nancy Fraser developed the models of equality, which she believed are possible aims that policy makers should use to move towards a more gender equal society (Fraser, 1994). This includes the Universal Breadwinner Model (UBM) which advocates that there is a need for policies that make women equal to men, whereas the Caregiver Parity Model (CPM) extended the focus of women’s care by enabling it to be highly respected, and thus resulting it in costing less for women taking up care roles. However, both models are greatly focused on women’s caregiving, which is far from gender parity being achieved. She proposed the radical Universal Carer Model (UCM), which reversed traditional roles making men more like women, with such models evident in the Netherlands. Whilst Fraser’s work was based in the US, concepts around gender equality can easily be adapted to policies in the UK. This is evident in Sweden for example, where a CPM is adopted to attempt to achieve equality. Other western countries have clearly been more successful than the UK in achieving gender equality – this is apparent through research into the history of policy in the UK.

The 1970’s was a pivotal time for gender equality policy, with post-election proposals made by the Labour government coming into power, promising to take women’s participation in the labour market more seriously. With previous gender models becoming outdated, Labours policies were proposed to ‘have a better balance between paid an un-paid work’ (Lewis and Campbell, 2007:4). Women have less choice and access to jobs in comparison to males and due to family responsibilities, restricting them geographically and to part-time work. This further results in monopsony over female employees (Weber,2016) as a result of an unequal patriarchal society. This led to a gender pay gap, as women had to switch to part-time roles. This was due to their family and child bearing responsibilities, in which they tended to move down the occupational ladder into low skilled paid work which they have limited mobility (Alakeson, 2012). The Labour government constructed the idea of a work family balance, which presented the opportunity to increase equality in working and caring roles. However, this did not actually lead to gender equality, as traditional roles still applied within households even if the idea of choice allowed families to be privatised.

The first set of real legislature proposed by Labour was The Equal Pay Act 1970, The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and The Employment Act 1980. The Equal Pay Act was introduced as an attempt to tackle the gender pay gap – which was initially a seemingly attractive policy leaning towards gender equality. However, it is questionable whether this was a way of the Labour government progressing their own manifesto by listening to public requests. For example, answering to groups such as the Dagenham feminists in 1968 (O’Grady, 2016), who were a driving factor behind the implementation of policies. Women were finally gaining access into the labour market, however as a consequence, other issues arose as many women were treated unfairly due to their pregnancy (O’Grady, 2016). The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 therefore stopped discrimination against men and women on the basis of their gender. Here it is evident that policy aimed to promote gender equality, ensuring that men are also protected. We see UK policy trying to promote gender equality for all, and not just equality for women. It could be possible that this was a sign of policy makers’ adopting the UBM – seeing women as men and men as women.

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Conservative ideology was based on traditional roles, seeing family as a private domain – with the male breadwinner and mother’s responsibilities of childcare (Pascall, 2008:4).. Despite flawed policies, opportunities for women began to improve as their participation in education increased. They were then able to take on higher positioned jobs. Whilst women’s participation increased, employment seemingly only thrived for white middle class educated women, resulting in inequalities in other factors such as class and ethnicity. Whilst women were advancing in the labour market, when they did wish to start a family they were at risk of the motherhood penalty. Here they were forced to take time off work and as a result returned to jobs they were too skilled for and paid unfairly. Fraser (1994) suggests that policy makers should adopt the CPM and re-train women for jobs after childbirth, as a way of ensuring women do not face the effects of the motherhood penalty and be equal with men. As evident in the polices mentioned – the government were attempting to build a UBM of gender equality. However, legislation had no real explicit focus of family policy, with policy solely being focused on women in employment with their traditional roles as carers still expected of them.

Only in the late 1900’s did policy begin to focus specifically on gender equality. With the New Labour government coming into power from 1997 – women’s rights as mothers, carers and workers were addressed. New Labour brought fresh ideological commitment to employment, introducing ‘policies to sustain women’s participations’ (Pascall, 2008: ). Policies such as the new deal for lone parents, working tax credits and sure start provided security for parents and part time workers. Sure start’s ten year strategy introduced in 1998, ensured that every child got an equal and best start to life by ensuring free pre-school places for 3 -4 year olds. However, this still posed child bearing responsibilities on women as they were still forced to work part-time, as full time working hour contracts for jobs exceed the hours of free childcare provided. Furthermore, it can be argued that these polices were not implemented to ensure gender equality for parents, but instead as a way of the government investing in the children of the future as potentially positive prospects of the economy. Finally, New Labours’ governmental power provided new hope 20 years after the first policy to address inequalities between genders. Policy makers were now importantly addressing women’s position as carers too. However, there is still no mention of men partaking in care work. It is questionable if gender equality was really being achieved. Lewis (2009), suggests that men’s lack of participation in care work has detrimental effects on women as they still have the dual burden of being primary carer and a worker. Lewis therefore proposed the capabilities approach. Whilst extremely radical, he proposes that each citizen should be supported by a fair income with government policies enabling individuals with a real choice. However, if this approach was ever to be adopted by policy makers it’s success is unlikely to set the UK up for achieving gender equality.

New labour shifted policy away from the male breadwinner model, to that of the dual earner. However, when they came into government it was clear that whilst women’s participation in the labour market has increased, the gender pay gap still existed. Following New Kabours 1992 manifesto, it was acknowledged that no real minimum wage existed. Although there had been attempts to control wage, (e.g. the national living wage), this was not successful. The national minimum wage was introduced in 1999 and provided an ‘effective and important means of reducing pay inequalities between male and female workers by establishing a fair price for individuals’ . Rubbery and Grimshaw (2011), suggest that there are features of this act which were in fact gendered. This is evident during the 1970/80s, women’s involvement in the labour market was generally in low paid social/care work – which is why the minimum wage seemed necessary. However, this did not ensure gender equality, as having a job does not value men and women as equals if they do not receive equal pay opportunities. Whilst gender equality was perhaps not policy makers main aim, the policy in some respects ‘smoothed out some of the imbalances that result from the interactions between sex segmentation’ (Rubery and Grimshaw, 2011:226). The national minimum wage is only one element of ensuring gender pay equality. It failed to propose a solution for inequality that is experienced between genders as a whole, and instead focused greatly on ‘how to tackle the persistent pay gap’ (Rubbery and Grimshaw 2011:248) – whilst legitimizing women’s low wages. Future policy needs to be more specific relating to gender equality to be successful, reinforcing the argument made that policy acknowledges gender inequality on the surface but does not focus specifically on achieving it.

New Labours increased gender equality advancements are evident through their improvement of maternity and paternity leave laws. The 2006 Works And Families’ legislation promoted flexibility by extending the maternity period (also receive statutory pay) and a massive step was taken to introduce paternity leave for fathers (James :271). This was an important feature of New Labours work family agenda (Lewis 2007). Paternity leave shifts UK policy into a CPM, equalizing men and women by providing support for women through not making them feel like they are burdened. Policies enable father’s involvement in care by allowing them with 3 months’ unpaid paternity leave and from 2003 2 week leave with statutory pay (Pascall,2008). Whilst policy in the UK is attempting to tackle gender inequality in work and caring roles, we have not been as effective as our European neighbours. For example, in the UK there is only 20 weeks of operative parental leave in comparison to 100 in Sweden and Hungry – ‘putting the UK down the European league’ (Fox et al, 2006:26). Furthermore, France have made their working week shorter to equalise gender working time resulting in less part timers, ‘with unequal working time making a major contribution to gender equality in the UK’ (Fox et al:2006:67). As part time work is at the centre of women’s disadvantage in society, perhaps adopting policies from other countries could aid UK policy in trying to achieve gender equality.

In conclusion, UK policy has been more focused on including women’s participation in the labour market rather than promoting gender equality. Traditional cultural stereotypes surrounding the strength and weaknesses of men and women are still prevalent in society, therefore justifying why legislation in force is ineffective in ensuring gender equality. With social norms being at the heart of society it is important to tackle the root of the problem instead of implementing policies on the surface. Only then will we be able to see society moving to a more equal one. Adopting gender equality policies from European neighbours where social norms are being broken and societies are becoming more equal will benefit the UK. UK policy is not affirmative nor harsh, and legislation that does entail gender equality have no harsh sanctions if broken (e.g. women still being paid less in the workplace). With the gender pay gap still relevant in society today, we are undoubtedly far away from achieving any of Frasers’ proposed models in the UK. However, although elements of the positive UBM and CPM are relevant in policies, they are on the surface and are not explicitly enforced which consequently promotes gendered inequality. A universal citizenship model in which both male and females have obligations to care is the only way gender equality will ever be achieved (Pascall, 2008). Whilst the UCM is the ultimate utopic desire, the UK is far from such radical ideas.

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The Aspects of Gender Equality Policy in the UK in Relation to Employment and Childcare. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
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