'Women-Friendly' State Interventions and Occupational Gender Segregation: Paradise or Paradox?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Social Policy and Intervention


While policymakers in the UK and elsewhere have sought to increase women's employment rates by expanding childcare services and other work/family policies, research suggests these measures have the unintentional consequence of reinforcing the segregation of men and women into different 'types' of jobs and sectors (Mandel & Semyonov, 2006). Studies have shown that generous family policies lead employers to discriminate against women when it comes to hiring, training, and promotions, as employers assume that women are more likely to make use of statutory leaves and flexible working. Furthermore, state provision of health, education, and care draws women into stereotypically female service jobs in the public sector and away from (better-paid) jobs in the private sector. Accordingly, research suggests that the more 'women-friendly' a welfare state is, the harder it will be for women - especially if they are highly skilled - to break into male-dominated jobs and sectors, including the most lucrative managerial positions (Mandel, 2012).

Yet, more recent evidence indicates that women's disadvantaged access to better jobs is not inevitable under generous welfare policies. For instance, women's share of senior management positions in Sweden, where women-friendly policies are most developed, now stands at 36%; this compares to a figure of 28% in the UK, where gender employment segregation has historically been lower (Eurostat, 2018). Thus, the aim of this project is to provide a clearer and fuller understanding of how welfare states impact on gender employment segregation by using innovative methods and approaches that have not been used to examine this research puzzle before.

To this aim, the project is organised into three 'work packages' (WPs). WP1 examines how conditions at the country-level mediate the relationship between welfare states and gender segregation in employment across 21 advanced economies. This includes Central and Eastern European countries, which prior research has tended to overlook. The country-level conditions included are cultural norms, regulations regarding women's representation on corporate boards, and labour-market characteristics. Data will be compiled from the International Social Survey Programme, OECD, Eurostat, the Global Media Monitoring Project, the World Bank, and Deloitte's Women in the Boardroom project. WP2 then investigates how the impact of welfare-state policies on a woman's career progression varies according to her socioeconomic position and the specific economic and social context in which she lives, using regional and individual-level data from the European Social Survey. Subsequently, WP3 carries out systematic comparative case studies to explore in depth the underlying mechanisms that explain why certain welfare states and regions exhibit high levels of gender inequality but low levels of class inequality, while in other places, the opposite is true. Data are drawn from the same sources as for WP1 and WP2, as well as academic literature and other relevant sources (e.g. government websites).

The project is important because its findings will inform policymakers about how their policies affect different groups of women and how to overcome the 'inclusion-inequality' dilemma (Pettit & Hook, 2009), i.e. bring more women into the workforce by providing adequate family policies and services, but without channelling women into stereotypically feminine occupations and undermining their career progression. Tackling such segregation matters because it is a leading cause of the gender pay gap (Mandel & Semyonov, 2014) and underpins the undervaluation of women's work (Grimshaw & Rubery, 2007). At the same time, bringing more women into positions of power can have positive 'trickle-down' benefits for lower-skilled working women, as gender-balanced top-management teams are associated with female-friendly workplace characteristics and practices that can benefit all women (Kowalewska, 2017b)

Planned Impact

The research will benefit the following communities:

POLICYMAKERS IN THE UK AND ABROAD. For example, the UK Government's Industrial Strategy identifies breaking down the barriers that prevent women 'from realising their full potential' (p.99) as a key aim (Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2017). Thus, by specifying the policies and other country-level conditions that reproduce, or instead help to reduce, gender employment segregation, the proposed project can make an important contribution to policy debates. Furthermore, the project's focus on regional variations in gender occupational segregation and the role of local factors in explaining such patterns can help policymakers to formulate locally-tailored policy solutions to redressing women's employment disadvantages, and so target resources where they are needed most.

In addition, by examining the effectiveness of gender boardroom quotas for reducing gender employment segregation, the research can contribute to policy conversations around quotas, which have proven contentious, with the Prime Minister herself having expressed scepticism towards them (May, 2012). Relatedly, studies have produced mixed results as to their benefits for women (e.g. Armstrong & Walby, 2012; Bertrand et al., 2018). Thus, the research can contribute greater clarity to these debates. And through generating such policy impact, the research can benefit BUSINESSES, as research has shown that more gender-diverse companies perform better (e.g. Wang and Kelan, 2013).

THIRD-SECTOR ORGANISATIONS aimed at achieving women's equality and rights. The Fawcett Society, which is the UK's leading gender equality charity, has agreed to be a stakeholder in the project. Andrew Bazeley, who is Policy and Insight Manager at Fawcett, states: 'Fawcett considers this a highly important programme of work to create and maximise the impact of an evidence base about the gendered implications of public policy. This work will benefit the campaign for gender equality and enable Fawcett to more effectively make the case for policy change.' Another third-sector stakeholder will be the European Trade Union Institute, which is the research arm of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Dr Agnieszka Piasna, who is a senior researcher at the institute, says: 'The issues you plan to address in your project are certainly of interest to trade unions. I see a benefit in generating this type of knowledge.' Indeed, a key priority of ETUC is to promote gender equality in pay. So, by contributing a fuller understanding of the factors that underpin gender employment segregation - one of the main drivers of the gender pay gap - the proposed project can make an important contribution to ETUC's aims. Other third-sector stakeholders whom I will reach out to include Equileap and the Work Foundation.

Additionally, the research can increase the awareness of THE PUBLIC with regards to persistent gender penalties in employment and how government policies help to alleviate, or potentially worsen, such penalties. Public interest in these topics is high, as evidenced by such events as the Glasgow strike action in October against low pay in female-dominated roles and the national debate that has unfolded following Carrie Gracie's resignation from the BBC over her underpayment.

Furthermore, the project findings can benefit WOMEN themselves. By identifying the barriers faced by women in entering male-dominated positions, including managerial ones, the project findings can benefit women who seek such positions, as well as more vulnerable women nearer the bottom of the labour market. This is because evidence suggests that when women comprise a 'critical mass' (>23%) of top managers, they are motivated and sufficiently powerful to push for female-friendly workplace policies and practices (e.g. pay monitoring) that can benefit all women (Kowalewska, 2017b).


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Description The project is still ongoing; however, the initial findings suggest that:

1. When measuring welfare states by their gendered employment outcomes rather than their policies, existing typologies appear less instructive. Southern European countries are more diverse in their gendered employment outcomes than predicted, as are Eastern European countries. These results underline the Western bias of dominant theories and frameworks of gender inequality and welfare states, and caution against treating the Mediterranean and post-Soviet regions as homogeneous blocs for hypothesis-testing and theory construction.

2. Each country is a complex and idiosyncratic configuration of multiple inequalities; hence, it does not make sense to label certain societies as more or less 'women-friendly' than others, since it depends on which indicator(s) of gender inequality we are consulting. Furthermore, the interrelationships between the different dimensions and measures of gender inequality are not always replicated across borders. The ambiguous meaning of gender inequality supports calls for looking beyond just one 'headline' indicator (e.g., labour force participation rates) or amorphous indices, and towards the separate 'counting' and monitoring of multiple measures of inequality.

3. While many employers do practise statistical discrimination against mothers and women of childbearing age as (potential) users of parental leave, this is not the only response. Some employers emphasise the business case for supporting users of leave (e.g., reputation, building a loyal workforce). Furthermore, the ways in which employers respond to parental leave-taking by women varies by industry and company size, as well as employers' own life experiences and conceptions of 'fairness'.
Exploitation Route By bringing to light marked differences in gendered employment outcomes across countries with similar institutional and cultural contexts - but also similar outcomes across diverse 'worlds' of welfare - this study offers a framework for the comparative analysis of gender and employment that is conducive to hypothesis-testing and theory construction. Furthermore, in showing how dominant frameworks based on the cultural and historical backgrounds of mature welfare states in Western and Northern Europe cannot be straightforwardly transposed to post-Socialist contexts, the cluster analysis suggests future research could benefit from incorporating a wider range of welfare states, including from other regions (e.g., East Asia), too (see also e.g., Haas et al., 2006; Steiber and Haas, 2012). This could help to revision theories of gender and employment by testing their applicability to diverse contexts and allowing for the integration of alternative institutional features and relationships.

In tracking progress towards greater gender equality, governments and international bodies often rely exclusively on women's labour force participation rates (e.g., the European Union's European Employment Strategy) or amorphous gender equality indices (such as the widely-used World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap). However, the 'multiple meanings' of gender inequality (Verloo, 2007) highlighted in the research underscore the value of separately 'counting' and monitoring a broader range of dimensions of gender economic employment inequality beyond labour force participation rates, and in ways that avoid the 'compensation' effects of indices. The framework can support such an holistic, multi-pronged policy response to tackling gender inequality, which may be useful for tracking the gender-class employment-related consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, in studying what employers actually think about female employees who have babies and take parental leave, rather than assuming what 'rational' employers will do in these circumstances, the research allows for a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the relationship between parental leave policies and women's career outcomes.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description Working with the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Policy brief 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Policy brief on the main implications of our paper on female breadwinners' economic wellbeing for policy across European countries
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://population-europe.eu/policy-insights/female-breadwinner-families-breadline
Description Post for the Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article written for a general public audience to mark Women's Pay Day and inform about how the gender pay gap is measured and its shortcomings, which sparked comments from the public as readers and the piece was republished on other public websites
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
URL https://theconversation.com/gender-pay-gap-is-bigger-for-some-women-than-others-heres-how-to-work-it...