Geography

In the News

Women, work and official quantitative sources

Alice Griffiths

9th March 2021

It’s a day late. But that’s the state of things, currently, in my house #juggling #parenting #working

International Women’s Day is (or was) a good day to ask, as geographers, should we be teaching about the so-called ‘she-cession’ in our classrooms? What has been the impact of the economic crisis wrought by a global pandemic on women’s work? And, more specifically, how has women’s participation in the paid economy been affected?

In Geography we focus on primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of industry and employment. We’re interested in the dependency ratio, for sure, and whether governments have enough working age people to tax, to support everyone else. Deprivation, we understand, is closely linked to unemployment figures. But should we go beyond this to investigate more closely the world of work?

At A level, students need to interrogate quantitative as well as qualitative sources and consider what these sources tell us about places and populations. One way into the ‘shecession’, perhaps, may be to begin to critically appraise official statistics.

The 2021 Census will, once the stats are in, provide a useful insight into how many women have lost paid roles. Over the last year, many have had to prioritise un-paid roles (including home-schooling) which contemporary categorisations of ‘work’ barely acknowledge. If you trawl through official labour market statistics, using a website like Nomis, the Office for National Statistics has historically put ‘stay-at-home’ mums (and dads) in a group called ‘economically inactive’. This official category includes the permanently sick or disabled, as well as students and the retired. But are the roles of homemaker or stay-at-home parent really irrelevant to the day-to-day economy?

We know from responses to the 2011 Census that at that time there were over 1,614,000 women and 167,000 men who were ‘looking after home or family’; a group of sizable scale. In terms of the value of such activity (also undertaken by people doing it on a part-time basis), the ONS found that total unpaid work in the UK had a value of £1.01 trillion, equivalent to approximately 56% of GDP (ONS, 2016).

Feminist geographers ask questions like: ‘Who defines what constitutes economic activity?’ and ‘What is “work”?’. Over the last year, we've all noticed there's a lot of work to be done in the home; even though not everyone has been doing it (see Australia's 2020 study of the gender split of household chores). The historic census questions, ‘When did you last work?’ and ‘Have you ever worked?’ have been dropped by the ONS from the 2021 Census of England and Wales. Given the likely and pretty emotive response they might have garnered this year from Britain’s formerly invisible, ‘caring’ workforce these omissions are understandable.

Will geography lessons give a nod to the value of work that’s hard to give a numeric value to? Are we discussing the way such graft constrains or defines (primarily) women’s contribution to the income of a country? Official statistics don’t adequately describe the lived experience of all groups in society. Maybe this is a good way into this issue for #geographyteacher

For further information about the 2016 ONS study of unpaid work follow this link.

Follow this link for the Official labour market statistics, Nomis.

Follow this link for analysis of Household impacts of Covid 19 in Australia (data published December 2020) in The Guardian (Feb 2021)

Alice Griffiths

Alice Griffiths has taught Geography over a period of almost twenty years. She is a published author and editor of a wide range of A level resources and has created award-winning, online content for younger students. An occasional presenter at the GA’s annual conference, she was head of department at an 11-18 school until 2020.

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