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Gender, disability and the protection gap

Long-running debates about equality in the world of work have been gathering momentum in recent years. But as awareness and understanding of inequality matures, it is important to begin examining increasingly granular groups to ensure nobody slips through the cracks. One such group is disabled women, who have “been invisible, both to the advocates of women’s rights and of disability rights”[1] according to a background paper put to UN Women.


Disabled women are a group facing unique challenges both collectively and individually, and are likely to face “double discrimination” throughout their lives, be it culturally or personally. This results in a valuable pool of willing workers being overlooked at best and dismissed at worst, which has knock-on effects on productivity, output and the protection gap.


In the UK there are more women with disabilities in work than men in absolute terms, around 2 million compared to 1.5 million. However, there are more women of working age with disabilities than men, so these figures translate to employment rates of 48.6% and 50% respectively. This means that despite the higher number of disabled women, disabled men are more likely to find employment.


What can be done to address this? The answer is simple, if not necessarily easy, and the same as many other issues faced by the UK workforce. Awareness, education and proactivity are vital. Employers need to be aware of the opportunity they are missing out on to tap a new resource pool as the war for talent heightens in intensity. They need to educate themselves about what help is available to make employing disabled women straightforward and productive. Proactivity is the real key though, and needs to be taken to heart by disabled women just as much as the employers – it is impossible to hire people who are not applying for jobs.


Careers advice, particularly for people with physical disabilities, is to seek work in the public sector as they are seen as needing to “set an example” and lead the way in diversity and equality in employment. However, the private sector is better equipped to employ disabled women, with more money to make reasonable adjustments and more freedom in how it’s spent, and has the most to gain through improved productivity.


The lack of employment opportunities facing disabled women, despite protections enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, exacerbates a nationwide problem of a lack of protection insurance in place. The protection gap across the UK was estimated at £2.6 trillion by the ABI in 2012.[2] A lot of research has been done to show that women are less likely than men to have protection insurance, and people with disabilities can struggle to purchase income protection or life insurance products.


One step which can encourage disabled women to consider private sector employers is to provide Group Insurance benefits with inclusive eligibility conditions such as a very simple “all employees”. This means valuable life insurance or income protection benefits can be gained by people who may otherwise struggle to acquire them, with the added bonus that they do not cost the worker anything. 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.


There are other simpler ways to support disabled women in work. Flexible working is a simple change for many in this age of teleconferencing, remote access and BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”), yet it can have a profound impact on the capacity of disabled women to contribute to the workplace, which could yield huge benefits to businesses.


All the way back in 2007, the Disability Rights Commission estimated 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.[3] 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.[4]


Businesses need to see the potential in creating opportunity for marginalised groups. Skilled, loyal workers are out there, and 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.


This article first appeared in COVER on 15 June, 2018.







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