When it comes to leadership, diversity is not an optional topic anymore. In April 2017, UK businesses with 250 or more employees had to publish their gender pay gap for the first time, which revealed a lack of gender diversity in most senior roles. This was followed by research conducted by the Trades Union Congress in May 2018, showing that the disability pay gap was at a four-year high.
And yet little has been done to address the issues for disabled women. A background paper put to UN Women noted that disabled women had “been invisible, both to the advocates of women’s rights and of disability rights”. For protection, as for any other industry, it is important to ensure nobody gets left behind.
Particularly in the workplace, the “double discrimination” disabled women are likely to face leads to a valuable pool of willing workers being overlooked, or worse, dismissed, which can impact productivity, output and the protection gap.
According to the Office for National Statistics, women are less likely to be in work, with a current gender employment gap of 9%. Not only that, but when in work they often receive fewer hours, with the number of women working part-time almost three times the number of men. Women are also more likely to be economically inactive, with 5.4 million in this category compared to 3.4 million men.
Moving to those with disabilities, the most recent disability employment gap in the UK was 34.7%, and has been above 30% for over a decade according to the charity Scope. This shows how employers have struggled to engage effectively. The latest Labour Force Survey also showed economic inactivity among disabled people was about three times higher than for those without disabilities, at 47.7% compared to 15.7%. A 2016 Parliamentary inquiry set forth an ambition to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. To put this into perspective, this would require an extra 1.2 to 1.5 million disabled people to enter work by next year, although the most recent labour force statistics show just 754,000 vacancies in the whole of the UK.
When combining the effect of the gender and disability pay gaps, disabled women earn 22.1% less compared to their non-disabled male peers on average. Moreover, while there are more UK women with disabilities in work than men in absolute terms, around 2 million compared to 1.5 million, it is worth noting that there are actually more women of working age with disabilities than men. Despite the higher number of disabled women, disabled men have proportionally better chances of finding employment.
The lack of employment opportunities disabled women face, despite protections enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, exacerbates a nationwide problem of a lack of protection insurance. The protection gap across the UK was estimated at £2.6 trillion by the ABI in 2012. People with disabilities have historically struggled to purchase income protection or life insurance products, and it is not right that they should also be limited in gaining these types of insurance as employee benefits.
What can be done to address this? Awareness, education and proactivity are vital. As the war for talent intensifies, employers need to be aware of the opportunity they are missing out on. Equal hiring should not only be a theoretical possibility through appropriate policies; employers must also take steps to shift cultural perceptions and make it known that they welcome applications from all.
While careers advice for disabled people is often to seek work in the public and charity sectors as they are seen as needing to “set an example”, there are simple concrete actions private sector employers can take to encourage disabled women to consider positions in their businesses.
Providing Group Insurance benefits with inclusive eligibility conditions would show how serious they are about providing for their needs. For most employees, cover is provided without the need to provide any medical information. This means valuable life insurance or income protection benefits can be gained for free by people who may otherwise struggle to acquire them.
Besides the financial benefits, many Group Insurance policies include a broad array of support services which can be used day-to-day, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, second medical opinion services and wellbeing tracking apps.
The Disability Rights Commission estimated over a decade ago that raising the employment rate of disabled workers to that of non-disabled workers would generate six months of economic growth, boosting the economy by £13 billion. The Chartered Management Institute estimated in 2016 that doing the same thing for women could boost GDP by 10% by 2030 and add £41 billion to the economy each year.
Businesses need to see the potential in creating opportunity for these skilled, loyal workers. Employers with vision can seize the moment and lead the way in a virtuous circle that would benefit them as much as it does society as a whole, and the individuals they take on in particular.