Northern Ireland ranks top among the nations and regions in the UK for women’s employment outcomes, according to PwC’s latest Women in Work Index.
The annual index of OECD countries, which uses 2021 data and also looks at the UK’s 12 nations and regions, found that Northern Ireland has moved up three places to the number one spot in the UK regional index to overtake the South West which had been the top-performing region for three years consecutively. The South West now drops into second place, while Scotland remains third, unchanged from last year.
Northern Ireland also boasts the smallest gender pay gap (only 5% in NI versus 14.4% UK wide), and a higher female full-time employment rate than most (the third best across the UK at 64%). However, it has the lowest female labour force participation rate (70%) of all nations and regions in the UK (74.6% UK wide).
The Index also shows the participation rate gap between men and women in NI is 5% – only marginally higher than South West which is the best performer on this indicator. This suggests that participation as a whole might be the larger point of concern in Northern Ireland as opposed to participation by women specifically.
Cat McCusker, Regional Market Leader at PwC Northern Ireland, said:
“While it is positive that the outcomes for women once they enter the labour market in Northern Ireland – in terms of pay and secure full-time jobs – are much better than other regions, the fact remains that a lower proportion of working age women enter the labour market here in the first place.
“Looking forward, this means there are likely to be significant ‘hidden pockets’ of talent in NI – including women who have not been active in the labour market. We need to consider how we can revitalise our working population by getting more women and men into the workforce here in the first place. This is a question of equity but also a pertinent economic issue as NI faces labour and skill shortages.
“There is no panacea, nor a one size fits all policy, that will solve the problems for women at work today. The cost of – and attitudes towards – childcare needs urgent focus and action, with government and business working together to help mitigate the confluence of shocks – including Covid-19 and the rising cost of living – that have occurred over the last few years so that women are not priced out of the workforce. For many it is more affordable to leave work than remain in employment and pay for childcare, especially for families at lower income levels.
“We should consider enhanced parental leave policies and more flexible working so that all parents can balance work and caring responsibilities, alongside tackling the cost of childcare, to help create a more equitable and prosperous society for all.”
Figure 1. This year’s Regional Index stats
Figure 2. The top 3 performers in this year’s Regional Women in Work Index
|2021 Index Ranking||Change from 2020|
|1||Northern Ireland||Moved up 3 places|
|2||South West||Dropped 1 place|
|3||Scotland||Same as 2020|
Figure 3. Northern Ireland performance in Regional Women in Work Index
|Summary of the key changes between 2020 and 2021||
The Index: how the UK is faring
The Index shows that the UK has recorded an absolute decline in women’s employment outcomes in 2021, seeing its relative international ranking fall five places, from 9th to 14th. The UK saw a significant widening of its gender pay gap by 2.4 percentage points to 14.4% in 2021 – four times the average increase across the OECD as a whole. Combined with a slight fall in the female labour force participation rate, the UK’s absolute index score declined by two points in 2021, and led to a relative fall to 14th in OECD rankings compared to 2020.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s progress towards gender pay parity has been in reverse, and women left the UK labour market between 2020 and 2021 (a decline of 0.4 percentage points in the female labour force participation rate), during a time of labour market recovery across the OECD. The rising costs of childcare threaten to make these results even worse, with more women being priced out of work altogether.
The role of childcare and parental leave policies
The report highlights childcare affordability issues for families in the UK. In 2021, childcare costs relative to average income were one of the highest across OECD countries. Net childcare costs represented almost a third of the income of a family on the average UK wage. This compares to as little as 1% of income in Germany.
Since 2015, childcare costs in the UK have risen dramatically, while income growth has slowed. Average nursery costs per week rose by more than 20% between 2015 and 2022, while average weekly earnings rose by 14% (both in nominal terms).
Upcoming research from PwC* shows that an increase in the number of government-funded free childcare hours could generate a significant increase in the size of the labour force.
While affordable childcare could help more women back into the workforce, in order to tackle the motherhood penalty at its root, the report highlights solutions that could help to redistribute childcare more equally between women and men. This would assist in shifting societal attitudes about gender roles. While the UK currently offers a statutory shared parental leave scheme, take up by fathers is low (estimated 2-8%), mainly due to affordability issues, with payment to fathers only at the statutory level (capped at £156.66 per week, among the lowest in Europe).