Gender segregation is embedded in food retail roles. Abbie Winton looks at how this can change.
Supermarket shopping of old has, perhaps, changed forever with demand for online food retailing soaring during the pandemic, growing 25.5% in 2020 compared to the 8.5% previously anticipated.
For most food retailers, trading online has long lacked appeal due to the low margins which it offers. However, the pandemic restrictions prompted retailers to expand their dotcom offering almost overnight to both meet demand and stay competitive during a time when customers were restricted in their ability to do their shopping in-store.
To meet the excess demand all of the major retailers took on additional workers, and today new roles are being created in large numbers in distribution and logistics against a backdrop of slowly dwindling numbers of workers serving on the shop floor.
However, also characterising these changes are the historical patterns of gender segregation that persist within the sector, despite men moving into retail roles in recent years. Therefore, we need to be asking not just what the food retail sector is likely to look like post-pandemic, but who is likely to remain working in it.
Segregation of food retail work
The move online and growing use of self-checkouts in-store have in part helped facilitate a reduction in the need for checkout staff. These jobs have long been disproportionately filled by women who needed the ‘flexibility’ to manage work alongside caring responsibilities.
In contrast, there has already been an expansion of new roles in warehousing, logistics and fulfilment which have traditionally been filled by men and demand hours less likely to suit the needs of the household. For example, an analysis of recent ONS (2021) data shows that 67% of employees working on supermarket shop floors are women, a large proportion of whom are over the age of 45. This figure increases to 70% if you look at checkout and cashier roles specifically.
Female employees from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (as defined by the ONS) are five times more likely than white male employees to be working in checkout roles. In contrast to this, the gendering of employees working in the wholesale of food production (including the supply of these goods to supermarkets) is vastly male-dominated (men continue to hold 78% of these roles). These figures show the embeddedness of gender, and racial, segregation in these roles.
Considerations for the future
Although there have been some improvements in the occupational segmentation of retail roles in recent years, changing demands mean the future of work in food retail is likely to reflect the pre-existing patterns of segregation within the sector.
To avoid exacerbating these inequalities, measures are needed to ensure women and minority groups are equipped to enter into new roles in logistics and distribution. To approve accessibility to these roles, policy changes will be required.
Research has also shown that women are more likely to rely on public transport to get to work and thus tend to take jobs that are closer to home and schools. However, distribution centres tend to be located in harder-to-reach areas, making these jobs less accessible to women. Therefore, provisions would have to be made to improve transportation routes to these areas both in terms of accessibility and safety.
Secondly, the ‘pick rates’ which dictate dotcom work can often be challenging for disabled and older workers to sustain. Reasonable adjustments will be required where necessary to accommodate these groups. Thirdly, employee-led flexible working arrangements and parental leave could allow for an easier transition into this type of work. Therefore, policymakers and businesses should ensure that the jobs which remain do not reinforce the existing inequalities which are endemic to service work and which have been further exacerbated by the current crisis.