Getting more women in work could add £170bn to the UK economy

If Britain replicated Sweden's success on female participation in work, GDP could rise by 9%.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 05 May 2016

As International Women’s Day is tomorrow, you’d expect a spate of coverage celebrating successful women from all walks of life, right? Well, yes and no. It’s also the time where reams of alarming research suggests we’re all behind where we should be when it comes to representation in the workplace. 

Last week Accenture broke the bad news that gender ‘equality’ won’t be reached until 2065. Now PwC’s Women in Work index says if only the UK could look to the Swedes, our economy would be so much better off. Increasing female participation in the British labour force to match the level reached in Sweden could add a princely (or should that be princessly?) £170bn to the UK economy, boosting GDP by 9%.

Using OECD data the number-crunching folk at PwC said six out of ten women in Sweden are in full-time employment and 13% work part-time. That’s one of the highest female employment rates in the OECD. The UK's numbers aren't bad – 42% of women are in full-time employment and 26% in part-time – but could be better. Which seems very much in tune with the general feeling surrounding gender equality in the UK – could be worse, could be better. If we managed to inch up the female employment rate from 68% to 73%, the UK’s GDP would increase by nearly a tenth.

Pricey childcare costs have long been pointed to as a significant challenge for parents and a chief reason many mothers don’t end up returning to work. The report said this was still the case – parents in the UK spend around 27% of household income on childcare, which seems a hefty amount however you look at it. That’s more than five times the amount spent in Sweden, where parents benefit from higher government subsidies. It’s a much more manageable 5% of household income for the Swedes.

The other concern is the higher percentage of part-time workers in the UK. Many women – PwC estimates 1.5 million – want to work for more hours, but just don’t have the opportunity to do so. Throw in some other timely research from recruitment firm Robert Half, which suggests women are likely to earn £300,000 less than men over their working lives, and the ‘must do better’ sentiment rears its head again.

Improved access to affordable childcare and shared parental leave won’t miraculously fix the gap of course, but they’d certainly play their part in getting more women into work – and the type of work they want. 

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