The future of the left since 1884

International Women’s Day: Can a relational state close the gender gap?

Britain has been living through an unprecedented period of austerity - but its impact has been particularly felt by women. As numerous studies have found, women have been hit hardest by closures of services such as children's centres and libraries, because...


Britain has been living through an unprecedented period of austerity – but its impact has been particularly felt by women.

As numerous studies have found, women have been hit hardest by closures of services such as children’s centres and libraries, because they make up the majority of frontline service users.  Women make up the majority of carers who have had to take on more responsibility as state support has been withdrawn. These additional caring responsibilities have made it harder for women to get into work. Most public service workers are women and they are therefore greatly affected by the public sector pay freeze and job losses.

With spending cuts likely to continue into the next parliament, these pressures will only worsen unless action is taken across a number of fronts.  First, we need to address the growing caring burden that is falling on Britain’s women as a result of an ageing society.  We know there is a growing ‘care crunch’ affecting many women in their 50s, who are now squeezed between caring for their grandchildren and caring for elderly parents. To help support older women stay in work we should look at strengthening rights to flexible working for those with caring responsibilities.

Second, mothers who want to work are being trapped out of the labour market by the lack of affordable childcare.  This is reinforcing gender inequalities, limiting family incomes and exacerbating child poverty.  IPPR argues that we need to rapidly expand affordable childcare, particularly for mothers with children aged up to two, for the low-skilled and for lone parents and for parents of three and four year olds where mothers are already in work to enable them to increase their working hours. While there is a short term investment required this is paid back by the additional tax revenues from a higher maternal employment rate.

Third, we need to address how public services are organised.  IPPR recently carried out research with women using maternity, childcare and adult social care services and found enormous frustration with the way services are configured.  Too often when the women we spoke to wanted a proper ongoing relationship with a professional or a service, they experienced a perfunctory transaction.

In home care for instance, women carers described how their relatives were visited by different care workers each time, who generally had little time to engage in conversation. This is exacerbating loneliness and means health and care needs are overlooked.  The women we spoke to also described how they had to spend huge amounts of time brokering care services for elderly relatives: negotiating their way through a fragmented public service landscape that was akin to climbing over an assault course.

The women we spoke to stressed a number of things that would improve their experience: greater consistency of staff, stronger interpersonal skills on the frontline, greater access to other service users in the same situation, more integrated services and a single point of contact.

These findings have informed our thinking at IPPR about what has become known as the ‘relational state’.  This builds on the pioneering work of organisations like Participle who have been innovating for many years in more people-centred, joined up and personalised services.  For too long governments sought to improve services through a technocratic mixture of managerialism and markets.

The world is now far too complex for standardised ‘everywhere and anywhere’ solutions or for market reforms that fragment services when what is required is greater integration around citizens and places. As we have seen service users are becoming incredibly frustrated by being dealt with in a ‘tick box’ fashion by services designed in narrow functional silos.

To move away from technocratic delivery modes of public service to more relational services, we need to do three things: first, devolve budgets to towns and cities so that they can pool budgets around complex problems and invest in prevention; second, integrate and join up services around users and neighbourhoods so that services can be designed around the whole person or whole place; and third deepen the relationships between service users and professionals (for example, ensuring greater consistency of staff such as through neighbourhood based working and allocating key workers) and among service users themselves, such as by providing easier access to peer support.

There is no easy road out of the difficult financial choices that will have to be made in the next parliament, but if we are to avoid a further widening of Britain’s gender inequalities, we need to take action now to meet growing care needs and to reform services so that they are better designed around the lives of their users.

Rick Muir is associate director for public service reform at IPPR and co-author with Imogen Parker of ‘Many to Many. How the relational state will transform public services’

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