Achieving Gender Equality
Jill Rubery reflects on her ground-breaking research on women's employment issues.
My interest in women’s employment started 50 years ago when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I won the Adam Smith essay prize for my entry on women’s employment.
As a researcher in the Cambridge Department of Applied Economics from 1978 to 1989 I then went on to undertake a range of research projects for the Department of Employment on problems of low pay and equal pay issues, while in 1982 I co-wrote a book outlining the case for a national minimum wage. I would like to think my work played its own part in stimulating debate on the topic that led eventually to its adoption.
While at Cambridge I developed a strong interest in comparative employment research and in 1988 published an edited book on Women and Recession in four countries. This comparative work then became my main focus when between 1991and 2007 I led an expert group on gender, employment and social inclusion for the European Union.
The group undertook research on women's employment across the EU and provided advice to the European Commission on how to promote gender equality at a time when it came to the forefront of European policy.
The growth of women's employment has since been one of the most sustained and widespread social changes over recent decades. But the role of our network was in part to point to the need for both social policies and employment practices to be updated to accommodate these changing patterns and social norms.
If we try to achieve gender equality in an increasingly unequal world, progress will be very slow as we are trying to swim against the tide.
Having moved to Manchester to what was then UMIST in 1989, in 1994 I established The European Work and Employment Research Centre at The University of Manchester which undertook a wide range of comparative European research on many aspects of employment, including specific gender and employment studies.
In 2017 this research centre merged with another to form the Work and Equalities Institute, based here at AMBS. The research centre and Institute have not only contributed to student curriculum and education at Manchester but have also produced many great work and equalities researchers working now as lecturers, professors and policy analysts across the world.
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As I reflect on my research over many years on gender equality, my feeling is that significant progress will always be hard to achieve unless we also work towards a more equal society and employment system. If we try to achieve gender equality in an increasingly unequal world, progress will be very slow as we are trying to swim against the tide.
Moreover, if we are only concerned with women’s share of top jobs and not with the working conditions and opportunities for those in the bottom half of the labour market, we would only be providing equality for a small share of women.
Indeed, from my early concerns with low pay and the need for a minimum wage I have made the case for higher employment standards at the bottom of the labour market as both a valued cause in its own right, but also as one of the most effective ways to support women.
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Meanwhile our work goes on. Whether it’s working for instance with the International Labour Organisation on how female frontline workers were treated during Covid, or looking at how we need to combine egalitarian employment policies with gender specific initiatives to make headway on the gender pay gap, there is much still to do and much to lobby for as we seek to get our voice heard.