Tower Hamlets Council - using equality data to inform strategic planning and promote equality: women and worklessness

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Tower Hamlets Council - using equality data to inform strategic planning and promote equality: women and worklessness *

In 2010, Tower Hamlets Council’s annual review of equalities data indicated that over 70 percent of working age Bangladeshi women in the borough were not in formal work.  Estimates for Somali women in the borough revealed similarly high levels of economic inactivity. Figures just released from the 2011 Census show that Tower Hamlets has the second highest proportion of women who are not in formal employment in the country, at 13.2%, compared to just 1.3% of men.

Whilst recognising that the life experiences, decisions and choices that lie behind these figures are complex, it is clear that worklessness can lead to poverty and social exclusion. Moreover some of the factors which prevent women from working are themselves symptomatic of unequal treatment or opportunity, including high levels of unpaid care for children and adults with poor health, low levels of skills, lack of access to support and experiences of discrimination. Whilst local and national evidence suggests that many of these factors affect women from all backgrounds, Tower Hamlets data showed that Bangladeshi and Somali women were significantly more likely than others to be workless. For the last three years the Council, working with partners in the voluntary and community sector, education and employment services, and academic and research organisations, has sought to better understand the drivers of high levels of economic inactivity as well as what factors help and support women who want to access the labour market and use this intelligence to design interventions to reduce worklessness. This has included:

  • Life choices, life chances: The Council commissioned an independent research report based on in-depth qualitative interviews with 35 women from the Bangladeshi community and 29 from the Somali, using a loose life history approach. These were supplemented by interviews with key informants working within the community and the Council to promote women’s access to work. The aim of the research was to provide detailed qualitative insights into the factors that impede and facilitate access to paid work among women from these two communities.
  • Statistical analysis carried out by Mayhew Harper Associates synthesized data from a number of local surveys to estimate factors predicting the risk of economic inactivity within the borough. These included: being of Bangladeshi origin, being female, living in social housing, not having English as a first language, having no qualifications at diploma level or higher, and suffering poor health.
  • Tower Hamlets Council Employment Strategy 2011: Drawing on the 2010 equality data assessment, the strategy recognised the need to better understand the reasons for high levels of economic inactivity among women in the borough and included an objective to ‘Work with partners to respond to the high economic inactivity rates amongst women, particularly Bangladeshi women and to take up recommendations from recent research to design interventions based on the report findings for Bangladeshi and Somali women’. This was a significant shift in focus; in previous years the focus of the majority of Council and other public sector funding had been on those unemployed people in the borough who were closest to the labour market. An indirect consequence of this approach was that despite significant investment of resources, work to address unemployment had done little to narrow the gap between unemployment rates for Bangladeshi and Somali women and all other women in the borough, which has a knock on effect on overall employment rates of women in the borough.
  • The Overcoming the Barriers project was a pilot project funded by the Employment Team in the Council to respond to the findings of research set out above. The project ran between 2010 and 2012 and aimed to break down the barriers to employment faced by Bangladeshi and Somali women. Three third sector organisations were commissioned to support participants into sustainable employment, as well as gain a better understanding to ‘what works’ in providing the support needed to help women from these communities enter employment.

Recent and upcoming changes to welfare benefits mean that it may become impossible for families to afford to live in the borough if adults in the household do not work. The need to identify what factors influence the engagement of Bangladeshi and Somali women with labour market in the borough has therefore become all the more pressing. Having undertaken this work Tower Hamlets are now in a better position to support women affected by the welfare reform into work through specifically tailored support with childcare, English language learning and job skills.


* The Fawcett Society’s Policy Submission to the Review of the Public Sector Equality Duty: 19 April 2013