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  • 26th Apr 2022

Low-paid and low-skill women – moving beyond education

Recently we launched a global research programme aiming to understand ways to support low-paid, low-skill women progress into higher quality work, supported by JPMorgan Chase. Today we publish our review of the evidence on low-paid and low-skill women in the UK, France, Spain and South Africa. We focus on the barriers to and enablers of progression for these women, and identify some promising solutions. 


In the wake of COVID-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine, many countries are now facing a cost of living crisis. Impacts are disproportionately felt by women, who are more likely to work in low-paid roles and are more vulnerable to increases in the cost of living e.g. low-paid women are 7 percentage points more likely to have fallen behind on bills vs low-paid men. Here are some of our most interesting findings.

Education: More education does not always translate to higher pay 

Academics, policymakers and employers often turn to education as the catch-all solution for enabling women to progress in the workplace. In positive news, we found that in each of the four countries, including South Africa, women’s level of education is equal to or better than men’s. Despite this, women are still disproportionately overrepresented in low-paid and low-skill roles. Even when men and women have the same education, women earn $3 less per hour on average, suggesting education alone cannot overcome the barriers to progression women face. 

Flexible working: Give women autonomy, not last-minute scheduling

Across the world, women are disproportionately responsible for housework and childcare responsibilities. For example, in Spain, women spend an extra 2 hours 23 minutes on unpaid work than men. Flexible working patterns can help women stay and thrive in the labour market. However, while the COVID-19 pandemic has centred the flexible work conversation on remote working, this is often not possible for low-paid workers.

The main challenge for low-paid women is predictable hours: nearly a third of all UK workers are given less than a week’s notice of their shifts, rising to half of workers earning below the real Living Wage. True flexibility should preserve the autonomy of low-paid and low-skill women, rather than be a tool for employers to fill shifts at short notice. Making work schedules more predictable and known further in advance for low-paid women is paramount, alongside ensuring that those who make use of flexible working arrangements are not hampered in their promotion opportunities and do not experience a pay penalty.  

We discuss a number of other important barriers in the review, including those faced at the individual, employer and societal levels.


So what works?

We can’t give a definitive answer on what works, as there hasn’t been enough rigorously evaluated evidence to date. However, some interventions are promising:

  • Improve flexible working. Encourage employers to allow shift swapping and fair scheduling and to default job advertisements to include flexible working statements. 
  • Increase pay frequency. Paying employees more frequently may reduce financial stress. Evidence from the US suggests that this could be effective at reducing financial stress.
  • Improve access to child-related support. Remove frictions in applying for support and make it clearer what needs to be done and when.
  • Improve the value of low-paid and low-skill women’s occupations. For example, by encouraging more men into those fields, to counteract gendered norms, such as those in France where occupations are based on outdated classifications from the 1970s

We explore these in further detail and additional interventions in the review.


We need partners to take this forward

The solutions we have found in our literature review could be refined and tested, and are not necessarily the only possible solutions. We are interested to hear from:

  • Employers and recruiters: can you help us design new interventions? And possibly test those interventions at a later stage?
  • Academics and research organisations: do you have ideas for what could work?
  • Policy professionals: can you lend policy context to solutions within the UK, France, Spain or South Africa?
  • Charities and women’s groups: can you provide an experienced perspective on whether the solutions will work? Can you offer additional solutions?

Get in touch with us if you want to answer any of the above questions or have any further thoughts to share.

We will be reaching out to low-paid and low-skill women too, through surveys and interviews. 



Read the full report