Unemployed, underpaid, excluded—women with disabilities remain invisible in social policies related to employment.
Women with disabilities constitute 25.9 per cent of all women in the European Union and over 55 per cent of all persons with disabilities. There are thus more than 50 million women with disabilities in Europe, without counting those segregated in institutions (who are not even included in the statistics). Despite comprising a majority of persons with disabilities, however, European social policy does not often consider women with disabilities specifically, even though they endure lower employment and higher poverty.
European Commission data show that only 51.3 per cent of people with disabilities are employed, compared with 75.6 per cent of people without disabilities. This varies widely not only across EU member states but also by gender. Yet the data collected by the commission do not provide specific information on the employment of women with disabilities.
A clear trend however emerges from data gathered by the European Institute on Gender Equality. This shows that only 20 per cent of women with disabilities are in full-time employment, versus 28 per cent for men with disabilities and 48 per cent for women without disabilities. They also have very low mean monthly earnings (on Eurostat’s purchasing power standard) of 1,931, compared with 2,064 for women without disabilities and 2,504 for men with disabilities.
Such disparities exist all over Europe. In 2020, research found significant gender disparity in the Spanish labour market, for example, with almost 64 per cent of employees with disabilities being men.
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All persons with disabilities face structural discrimination in securing work. Discrimination may include refusal of ‘reasonable accommodation’ by the employer, inaccessible workplaces (and the digital and physical environment around them), stigma and discrimination. These same factors are present in education, leading to lower educational attainment. Persons with disabilities are often thus excluded from the open labour market, ending up in informal or alternative structures, including sheltered workshops with salaries below the minimum wage or unpaid work.
Putting women and men with disabilities in the same box however fails to address the additional gender bias women with disabilities face in employment. Too often, women with disabilities are seen as abstract ‘persons’—not women. Men are meanwhile considered the norm and gender issues, such as responsibilities around care work or sexual harassment, are not considered in disability policies. So in addition to the barriers encountered by all persons with disabilities, women with disabilities face the weight of patriarchy, sexism and gender-based discrimination.
Such discrimination keeping women out of employment or in marginalised situations takes the form of gender bias in taxation systems, lower access to continuous education and training, unequal pay for equal work, in work-poverty, unequal caring responsibilities and inadequate (or non-existent) measures to support women as carers, as well as issues related to violence and harassment.
EU data show that 61 per cent of women with disabilities have experience of sexual harassment since the age of 15 (compared with 54 per cent of women without disabilities). In-work harassment is unlikely to be an exception. In fact, employers may be more likely to accept inappropriate behaviour towards women with disabilities than abled-bodied women—as revealed by testimony in a UN Women paper published in 2020. To add insult to injury, women with disabilities are often forbidden to speak up and may even leave their jobs because of such abuses.
The double-glazed ceiling
Breaking the glass ceiling is an objective for women in all their diversity. But in the case of women with disabilities the ceiling is double-glazed.
Disability-specific policies are important in addressing employment inequalities. They are necessary to deal with many issues, such as disability-based discrimination, accessibility and reasonable accommodation. When these policies are unmindful of gender, however, they are more beneficial to men with disabilities—55 per cent of persons with disabilities (the women) are left behind.
For example, a 2016 report from the independent French défenseur des droits (defender of rights) highlighted that training courses proposed to women with disabilities, meant to advance their careers, were not adapted to their disability or family life. Furthermore, they often focused on sectors of activity where few women were already present. It also revealed that women with disabilities were less likely than men with disabilities to be referred by disability services to professional rehabilitation centres.
This is why all proposed measures, including those related to accessibility, need to be scrutinised with a gender lens. For instance, beyond the accessibility of the workplace, accessibility of childcare and flexibility of schedule, as a form of reasonable accommodation, are required to improve the employment of women with disabilities. Quota systems should also include a gender perspective.
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Unfortunately, the employment package for persons with disabilities released by the commission in September does not yet include any mention of, or actions targeting, women with disabilities. The EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 meanwhile includes women with disabilities only vis-à-vis issues related to violence against women—they are invisible in the sections addressing employment and on closing the gender gap in the labour market.
Falling through the cracks
Women are, to all intents and purposes, falling through the cracks of policies that do not consider the intersections among axes of discrimination. To ensure greater consideration of women with disabilities in social policies, the European Disability Forum has published a paper on the employment of women with disabilities.
Especially urgent is the inclusion of women with disabilities in measures related to employment developed under the EU disability and gender strategies—in particular the package to improve labour-market outcomes for persons with disabilities. Proper monitoring would also be vital to fill the data deficits, for example by including indicators on employment of women with disabilities in the Social Scoreboard and specific recommendations in country reports.
But consideration of gender goes behind that. It entails rethinking the way we design and implement policies from a holistic perspective. It means providing an inclusive education system free from stereotypes. It requires ensuring that girls and women with disabilities can choose their work in light of their desires and talents, not constrained by inaccessibility or bias.
Also critical is recogntion that women with disabilities are often (more often than men) carers for children and relatives. Redistributing care responsibilities between genders and recognising care as work are thus fundamental. Finally, it is also necessary to address violence and harassment at work—recognising that women with disabilities are women too and listening to, and trusting, their voices.
Advancement and empowerment
More than a decade ago the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities entered into force in the EU and, since 2018, all member states have been committed to upholding the rights it contains. Under article 6, they have the responsibility to take measures to ensure the full advancement and empowerment of women with disabilities.
The EU has shown commitment to addressing disability and women’s rights and intersectional discrimination through various strategies and policy proposals. Yet while intersectionality has become a trendy word, actions are lacking.
The data do not lie. Women with disabilities are still invisible.