On 8 March 2024, the House of Lords will hold a debate on International Women’s Day and the steps taken to promote the economic inclusion of women.

The motion for debate is sponsored by Baroness Barran, who is the government’s spokesperson for equalities issues in the House of Lords, and Baroness Vere of Norbiton, parliamentary secretary at the Treasury.

1. This year’s themes: Investing in women and inspiring inclusion

International Women’s Day is marked on 8 March each year. It was first recognised by the UN in 1977, though it has earlier roots in the labour movements of the early 20th century.[1] For 2024, UN Women’s theme is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’, focusing on the fifth sustainable development goal of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030.[2] UN member states, including the UK, adopted the sustainable development agenda in 2015.[3]

There is also an annual theme set on the International Women’s Day website. For 2024 the theme is ‘Inspire inclusion’.[4] The campaign materials recommend areas for action to improve inclusion, such as:

  • forging women’s economic empowerment
  • recruiting, retaining and developing female talent
  • supporting women and girls into leadership, decision-making, business and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]
  • designing and building infrastructure meeting the needs of women and girls
  • helping women and girls make informed decisions about their health
  • involving women and girls in sustainable agriculture and food security
  • providing women and girls with access to quality education and training[5]

UN Women explains that globally, women are paid less than men, are less likely to work, and when they do are more likely to work in informal and vulnerable employment.[6] Women also undertake a higher proportion of unpaid care and domestic work. In 2023, the World Bank reported that an estimated 2.4 billion women of working age lived in economies that did not grant them the same rights as men.[7] The International Monetary Fund describes the benefits of women’s economic empowerment:

Empowering women to reach their full economic potential not only tangibly supports the key goal of reducing gender inequality, but also has tremendous significance on the advancement, competitiveness, and future-readiness of economies worldwide. In this regard, empirical evidence shows that women’s economic empowerment and the closing of gender gaps in key areas is associated with positive macroeconomic outcomes, including higher economic growth, lower inequality, increased productivity, better financial sector outcomes and greater financial stability.[8]

Research commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicated that the Covid-19 pandemic reversed some of the recent gains in women’s economic empowerment. This was because women disproportionately lost employment and income, and had increased household care workloads, particularly with disruption to children’s education.[9]

2. Statistics on economic inclusion

Since 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has published global gender gap reports. The most recent report, from 2023, ranked the UK 15th out of 146 countries for gender parity.[10] The index reported that the UK had closed 73.1% of its gender gap for economic participation and opportunity, where 100% is gender parity.[11] This was slightly lower than the score of 73.3% for 2022.

The decrease in the UK’s score is in line with a global downward trend. The global score for economic participation and opportunity is 59.8%, down from 60% in 2022.[12] The WEF assessed that at the current rate it would take 169 years to close the global economic participation and opportunity gender gap.

Table 1. WEF gender gap economic participation and opportunity indicators: UK


 Gender gap index indicators Rank (out of 146 countries) Score (100% would be gender parity)
Labour force participation rate 36 85.8%
Wage equality for similar work 41 69.7%
Estimated earned income 86 61.9%
Legislators, senior officials and managers 57 58.3%
Professional and technical workers 68 99.2%

The WEF provides further statistics on UK women’s participation in the labour market:[14]

  • Women make up 37.8% of the membership of boards.
  • 23% of women in employment are in part-time work, compared with 27.56% of men.
  • Women spend 12.65% of their time on unpaid domestic and care work, compared with 6.97% of time for men.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports on the gender pay gap in the UK. The latest figures, from 2023, demonstrate a 7.7% pay gap among full-time employees and a 14.3% gap for all employees. The general trend is that the gender gap has been declining gradually over time.[15] The UN reports that the gender pay gap globally is around 20%.[16]

The ONS also reports on earnings. In April 2023, the median weekly earnings for men were £666 and for women were £491. For just those in full-time work, the figures were £725 for men and £629 for women.[17]

Government Equalities Office analysis in the 2019 paper ‘The case for change: How economic gender inequalities develop across the life course’ acknowledges that there is a gender pay gap from the beginning of working life, indicating structural inequalities. The gap then widens notably for over-40s, in part demonstrating the impact of working part time or leaving the labour market due to unpaid care work. The effects “accumulate across the life course”, peaking when women reach their 50s. The analysis included an assessment of the drivers of the gender pay gap, illustrated in chart 1.

Chart 1. Drivers of the gender pay gap in the UK

Drivers of the gender pay gap in the UK
(Government Equalities Office, ‘The case for change: How economic gender inequalities develop across the life course’, July 2019, p 2)

The World Bank reports that globally, women are receiving pensions that are 25% to 30% lower than men’s. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has also highlighted the gender gap in pensions in the UK:[18]

  • Women born in the early 1940s receive around 25% less in state pension income than men on average.
  • The gap in state pension entitlement is below 5% for those born in the early 1950s due to a combination of factors including increased workforce participation and changes in law. For example the Pensions Act 2007 reduced the number of qualifying years needed for a full basic state pension.
  • Of people aged 22 to 59, 59% of women and 66% of men were saving for a private pension.
  • Working age women had average total annual pension contributions of £2,600 compared with £3,400 for men, driven largely by difference in earnings.

3. UK aid and international policy

3.1 Aid spending

The International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 created a legal requirement for the government to have regard to gender equality in all of the UK’s aid spending.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) scrutinises UK aid spending. Commenting on the 2019–23 period in a synthesis report, the ICAI pointed to challenges including a series of global crises, the merger of the former Department for International Development (DfID) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), changes of ministerial and government priorities, and a series of budget reductions.[19] It said these factors have had a “significant impact” on the government’s aid programme.

The ICAI noted in its report that the UK government maintained the education and equality of women and girls as a consistent development priority, though budget cuts meant a 77% decrease in the UK’s contribution to UN Women between 2020 and 2022.[20] The report highlighted that DfID and subsequently the FCDO had made progress on mainstreaming gender equality across policies and programmes in many areas. The ICAI noted that one of UK aid’s most significant achievements was supporting 2.8 million girls through school in Afghanistan.[21]

In July 2023, the FCDO published an equalities impact assessment on its spending plans for 2023/24.[22] The assessment found that the impact of reductions was “expected to be severe” on programmes with a focus on equalities, including for women and girls, and others in humanitarian need.[23] The government has previously said that overseas development assistance spending would return to 0.7% of UK gross national income when fiscal circumstances allow.[24]

3.2 International women and girls strategy

On International Women’s Day 2023, the FCDO launched an ‘International women and girls strategy’. One of the strategy’s commitments was to ensure “at least 80% of FCDO’s bilateral aid programmes should have a focus on gender equality, using OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) markers, by 2030”. The strategy has three priority themes (referred to as the ‘three Es’):

  • educating girls
  • empowering women and girls and championing their health and rights
  • ending gender-based violence

On women’s economic empowerment, the strategy said:

Our approach promotes skills acquisition, quality jobs and assets (financial, land and digital) along with freedom from restrictive gender and social norms (such as the uneven distribution of unpaid care and domestic work and conservative attitudes towards female employment in certain sectors and other gender stereotypes).[25]

The strategy provided the example of gender bond issuances in Africa, where credit facilities and preferential interest rate loans are provided to small- and medium-sized businesses owned by women, and for businesses with 30 to 50% women in their workforces.

3.3 International development white paper

The government published a white paper in November 2023 entitled ‘International development in a contested world: Ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change’. The paper stated that progress on human rights for women and girls, particularly reproductive rights, were at risk.[26] It also highlighted the disproportionate impact on women and girls of climate change and conflict. On economic empowerment, the white paper stated:

Inclusive growth drives sustained exit from poverty through raising incomes, creating jobs, and increasing women’s participation in the workforce. Growth enables the revenue generation needed to improve the quality and availability of public services including education, health, food and nutrition, and economic security and resilience. Creating markets and stimulating private sector investment is essential for sustained growth.[27]

The paper added that ‘British investment partnerships’ and ‘UK centres of expertise’, focused on providing advice on for example financial services, public finance, trade, and green and inclusive growth, would help public and private sectors to build “capabilities, skills and systems” to grow markets inclusively.[28]

3.4 Women, peace and security action plan

The government has also published a joint FCDO and Ministry of Defence ‘UK women, peace and security national action plan 2023–2027’, which “sets out the UK government’s commitment to reduce the impact of conflict on women and girls and promote their inclusion to prevent and resolve conflict”.[29]

4. UK domestic policy

4.1 New employment law

The Queen’s Speech 2019 contained a government commitment to introduce an employment bill which would provide “better support for working families” and encourage “workplace participation for all” and flexible working.[30] In 2022, the then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Grant Shapps, said that the department would sponsor private members’ bills on separate employment-related measures, rather than seek to progress a government bill.[31] Recent changes to employment law through this route include:

Some organisations have called on the government to go further. For example, the trade union Unison has highlighted that although existing legislation facilitates flexible working requests, employers can continue to be “inconsistent, rigid and unimaginative” in turning down requests.[32]

4.2 Extension of free childcare

In the spring budget 2023 the government announced that the 30 hours of free childcare currently available to most working families with children aged three and four would be extended in stages to children aged nine months to three years.[33] The first step will see eligible two-year-olds accessing 15 hours a week from April 2024.

While the increased provision was welcomed by some,[34] the Local Government Association and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have raised concerns about available capacity, quality of care and increasing nursery closures.[35] The Sutton Trust, an education think tank, has said that eligibility criteria mean that many of the most disadvantaged families will not benefit.[36] Families will either need to have earnings beyond a minimum criteria or be in receipt of certain benefits to be eligible.[37] Following a change in regulations in 2023, staffing ratios have changed so that staff can care for more children each, to increase capacity.[38] Some stakeholders, including the Early Years Alliance, have said this raises safety concerns.[39]

4.3 Other government programmes for women’s economic inclusion

In July 2019, the government published ‘Gender equality at every stage: A roadmap for change’ to “tackle persistent gender inequalities”. The roadmap included details of planned reviews and programmes:

  • tackling limiting attitudes to gender, including £2mn of investment through the Careers and Enterprise Company to develop and extend career-related learning in primary schools[40]
  • evaluating shared parental leave and pay schemes[41]
  • launching a returners grant fund to support especially vulnerable women to return to work[42]
  • introducing an ‘Investing in women’ code to “expose the gender gap in investment”[43]

Following the 2021 publication of ‘Our vision for the women’s health strategy in England’, the government launched a fund for programmes supporting women’s health in the workplace. The Department of Health and Social Care said that the fund would “ensure women experiencing reproductive issues—such as the menopause or pregnancy loss—are better supported to remain in or return to the workplace throughout their careers”. On 22 February 2024, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that baby loss certificates are now available for parents who experience the loss of a baby before 24 weeks to “formally recognise” the loss.[44] Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins said, “this demonstrates progress in delivering our women’s health strategy and ensuring parents feel supported during this heart-breaking experience.”[45]

On 21 February 2024, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued new guidance on menopause in the workplace.[46] This followed earlier reports from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which found that 67% of women aged between 40 and 60 had experienced menopausal symptoms at work, and the Fawcett Society, which found that one in 10 women employed during the menopause left work due to their symptoms.[47] The guidance sets out employers’ legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and provides advice for employers on making reasonable adjustments. Baroness Falkner of Margravine (Crossbench), chair of the EHRC, said:

It is clear that many [employers] may not fully understand their responsibility to protect their staff going through the menopause. Our new guidance sets out these legal obligations for employers and provides advice on how they can best support their staff.

We hope that this guidance helps ensure every woman going through the menopause is treated fairly and can work in a supportive and safe environment.[48]

5. Read more

Cover image by William Warby on Unsplash


  1. United Nations, ‘International Women’s Day: 8 March’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  2. UN Women, ‘International Women’s Day 2024: ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’’, 14 December 2023. Return to text
  3. United Nations, ‘Sustainable development goals’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  4. International Women’s Day, ‘International Women's Day 2024 campaign theme is 'Inspire inclusion'’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  5. As above. Return to text
  6. UN Women, ‘Facts and figures: Economic empowerment’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  7. World Bank Group, ‘Women, business and the law’, 2 March 2023, p x. Return to text
  8. International Monetary Fund, ‘Tackling legal impediments to women’s economic empowerment’,18 February 2022, p 6. Return to text
  9. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ‘Evidence review of the global childcare crisis and the road for post-Covid-19 recovery and resilience’, 2021. Return to text
  10. World Economic Forum, ‘Global gender gap report’, 20 June 2023, p 11. Return to text
  11. As above, p 359. Return to text
  12. As above, p 6. Return to text
  13. As above, p 359. Return to text
  14. As above, p 360. Return to text
  15. Office for National Statistics, ‘Gender pay gap in the UK: 2023’, 1 November 2023. Return to text
  16. United Nations, ‘International Equal Pay Day: 18 September’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  17. Office for National Statistics, ‘Employee earnings in the UK: 2023’, 1 November 2023. Return to text
  18. Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘The gender gap in pension saving’, 8 March 2023. Return to text
  19. Independent Commission for Aid Impact, ‘UK aid under pressure: A synthesis of ICAI findings from 2019 to 2023’, 13 September 2023. Return to text
  20. As above. Return to text
  21. As above. Return to text
  22. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘Equality impact assessment for ODA allocations 2023–24’. July 2023. Return to text
  23. As above, p 6. Return to text
  24. HM Treasury, ‘Government sets out conditions for returning to 0.7% aid target’, 12 July 2021. Return to text
  25. As above. Return to text
  26. UK International Development, ‘International development in a contested world: Ending extreme poverty and tackling climate change’, November 2023, p 78. Return to text
  27. As above, p 72. Return to text
  28. As above, p 75. Return to text
  29. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Ministry of Defence, ‘UK women, peace and security national action plan 2023 to 2027’, 23 February 2023. Return to text
  30. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘The Queen’s Speech 2019’, 19 December 2019, p 43. Return to text
  31. House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, ‘Post-pandemic economic growth: UK labour market’, 21 April 2023, HC 306 of the session 2022–23, p 31. Return to text
  32. Unison, ‘Women in the UK’s public services repeatedly denied flexible-work requests’, 15 February 2024. Return to text
  33. HM Treasury, ‘Spring budget 2023’, 15 March 2023. Return to text
  34. Alexandra Topping, ‘Hunt’s £4bn childcare boost welcomed but fears remain for struggling sector’, Guardian, 15 March 2023. Return to text
  35. Local Government Association, ‘Nine in 10 councils concerned about nursery capacity ahead of 30 hours free childcare extension: New LGA research’, 6 July 2023; and Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Childcare reforms create a new branch of the welfare state—but also huge risks to the market’, 15 March 2023. Return to text
  36. Sutton Trust, ‘Sutton Trust responds to childcare announcements in the spring budget’, 15 March 2023. Return to text
  37. Early Years Alliance, ‘The ‘free childcare’ offers: What parents and carers need to know’, accessed 23 February 2024. Return to text
  38. The Early Years Foundation Stage (Learning and Development and Welfare Requirements) (Amendment) Regulations 2023. Return to text
  39. Early Years Alliance, ‘Alliance slams “ludicrous, pointless and potentially dangerous” plans to relax childcare ratios’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  40. Careers and Enterprise Company, ‘Primary’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  41. Department for Business and Trade, ‘Shared parental leave (SPL) evaluation’, 29 June 2023. Return to text
  42. Government Equalities Office, ‘Returners grant fund evaluation’, 17 March 2022. Return to text
  43. British Business Bank, ‘Investing in women code’, accessed 19 February 2024. Return to text
  44. Department of Health and Social Care, ‘Baby loss certificate launched to recognise parents’ grief’, 22 February 2024. Return to text
  45. As above. Return to text
  46. Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘Menopause in the workplace: Guidance for employers’, 22 February 2024. Return to text
  47. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, ‘Menopause in the workplace’, 4 October 2023; and Fawcett Society, ‘Menopause and the workplace’, 2022. Return to text
  48. Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘Regulator provides advice for employers on menopause and the Equality Act’, 21 February 2024. Return to text