Women, work and worklessness

The 2011 Census results show that Tower Hamlets has the second highest proportion of women who are not in formal employment in the country, at 13.2 per cent, compared to just 1.3 per cent of men.

The life experiences, decisions and choices that lie behind this figure are complex, ranging from 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.  We know that many of these factors affect women from all backgrounds, but some groups are more likely than others to be workless such as the Bangladeshi and Somali women.  

For the last five 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.

Through qualitative and quantitative research and action learning and engagement with key stakeholders we have developed significant knowledge and intelligence about these issues. Key pieces of work include:

Life choices, life chances:  This research report was 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 professionals 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.  Report and a Factsheet can be found below.

Statistical analysis carried out by Mayhew Harper Associates synthesized data from a number of administrative data base 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: 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’.

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. An independent evaluation of the project is currently being carried out by Accendo Consultancy.

Changes to Welfare Benefits: Upcoming changes 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.