Employment and labour market

Women in Scotland earn less than men, depend more on the shrinking pot of social security, and are more likely than men to be members of the swelling precarious workforce.

Women’s work is done in different occupational sectors. Women are more likely than men to work as cleaners, as carers, in catering, clerical and retail jobs. Women are also less likely to get promoted, and much more likely to be found in the photocopy room or the mailroom than the boardroom. Women are persistently and routinely discriminated against when they are pregnant and when they return from maternity leave.

The impact of the labour market differences represented by the pay gap is profound. Women are twice as likely to be in receipt of social security payments, more likely to consume public services, more likely to live with poverty and more likely to be underemployed relative to their skill and qualification level. Almost a fifth of the Scottish workforce is paid below the living wage, and 64 percent of these workers are women. Women’s employment in general is more precarious, and they are more likely to be in informal, temporary and part-time work that is most at risk in times of recession and economic uncertainty. 40 percent of low-paid workers are women working part-time.

With work in Scotland characterised by seemingly intractable gender gaps, the time for bold action is now.


By 2030 horizontal and vertical segregation in the public sector has reduced by 25 percent.

Scottish Government and Public Bodies should:

Take bold action to challenge segregation

Gendered segregation is evident along the skills pipeline from the cradle to the labour market, where it emerges as occupational segregation. This clustering of girls and young women into particular subjects and areas of study is compounded by social attitudes about women’s roles and leads to stark gender gaps in the labour market. Women are significantly overrepresented across low-paid and undervalued sectors, including care, retail, administration and lower grades within the public sector. Meanwhile, the glass ceiling that sees men overrepresented in management positions, including in female-dominated professions like teaching, is clear evidence of ongoing systemic failures to address gender inequality in the workplace and in occupational sectors.

An overarching, strategic approach to tackle gender segregation that encompasses education, skills, employability and employment support within the social security system is manifestly needed. Successive Scottish administrations have prioritised occupational segregation at a ministerial level, as a key strategic focus for work on gender inequality. However, despite this, results of those limited projects that have focused on tackling occupational segregation have themselves been marginal and unsustainable. The Scottish public sector must recommit itself to action, or see another generation sorted into jobs on the basis of their sex and not their individual potential.

We know a great deal about occupational segregation. The creative thinking of equalities initiatives and findings from decades’ worth of pilot programmes suggest ways in which population level change can be made. The value of work is socially constructed, and public bodies can use their power to shift assumptions about what certain types of work are worth. The methods of skills utilisation and work design can be brought to bear on improving the perceived transferability of administration skills. As we have seen in silicon Valley, where tech companies have grown their own female developers, organisations and companies can fill skills gaps by training admin staff to fill a proportion of technical roles.


By 2030 the gender pay gap in Scotland has fallen by five percentage points.

Scottish Government should:

Drive better practice

Labour Force Survey statistics show that the gap between female and male employment rates has never been narrower. However, these headline figures about labour market participation mask the insecurity, low pay and low quality of women’s employment in Scotland. Women make up 78 percent of the part-time workforce in Scotland, in large part because of the lack of flexible working opportunities that can be reconciled with unpaid work. As a consequence of the persistent discrimination within the labour market, the gender pay gap in Scotland sits at 15.6 percent.

Employment, company and equality law are all reserved to Westminster, so the current devolution settlement offers relatively few levers to Scottish Government to force private sector employers to act. Although there is more scope for mandating public authorities to take steps to reduce their pay gaps, the public sector equality duty has not succeeded in doing so. However, the Business Pledge is an example of a framework that places social pressure on companies to take action.

A Gender Equality in Business Scheme should be developed in partnership with women’s organisations and other stakeholders in Scotland. Building on the work of Close the Gap’s Think Business, Think Equality, it would create a national benchmark for quality in equal pay reviews, flexible working, gender balance across boards and management, tackling horizontal segregation, shared parental leave, the living wage and carer-sensitive employment policies. The involvement of women’s organisations, including subject experts Close the Gap, would ensure that the programme was robust. The scheme would support those companies that perceived a business case for action, and allow them to promote the gender sensitivity of their employment practice to prospective employees. It would also let them demonstrate their equalities sensibilities in public procurement processes.

Enabling change in private companies is not a quick process, but sustained action delivered through the programme will narrow the gap between men and women working in the private sector, and increase women’s economic autonomy.

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Gender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in ScotlandGender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in Scotland

Key terms


The business Pledge is a Scottish Government initiative that requires businesses to commit to improve their employment practices, among other things.


Devolution refers to the transfer of powers and competencies to a lower level of government, for example transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood. Powers which lie at Westminster are referred to as ‘reserved’.


Horizontal segregation refers to the clustering of men and women into different occupational sectors. For example, men are more likely to be employed in the construction sector, and women in the care sector.


The labour market refers to the space in which employers look and compete for labour, and in which workers look and compete for employment.


The precarious workforce refers to people employed in non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, and cannot support a household. Precarious workers do not have the same employment rights as other groups of workers.


Skills pipeline refers to the journey an individual needs to take to achieve their desired employment. It includes examining existing soft skills, employability skills and skills requiring development.


The Public Sector Equality Duty requires public authorities to take a proactive and organised approach to tackling institutional discrimination, and aims to mainstream equality into public bodies.

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