In the United Kingdom, the prevalent issue of underemployment quietly shapes the professional landscape, impacting a myriad of individuals across diverse sectors. Beyond conventional unemployment statistics lies a concealed reality: numerous individuals find themselves ensnared in jobs that fail to harness their skills, qualifications, and aspirations. Despite being employed, many grapple with securing adequate hours or positions that align with their expertise. This underutilisation not only affects financial stability but also corrodes morale and professional fulfilment. Underemployment is an issue that disproportionately effects women in both part time and full-time employment and by gaining a deeper understanding HR professionals will be better equipped for future planning, recruitment and job design.  


Defining Underemployment: 

 Underemployment is characterised by individuals working fewer hours than desired, resulting in diminished incomes and reduced spending capacities. Additionally, ‘invisible underemployment’ manifests when individuals are unable to secure jobs in their chosen field, often settling for positions that do not align with their skillset and offer salaries below their anticipated wage. 


Insights from Research: 

 A recent study conducted by the Underemployment Project, spanning multiple universities, aims to analyse the characteristics and experiences of the underemployed workforce until 2026. Preliminary findings indicate that women are disproportionately affected by underemployment.  

DR Luis Torres, lead reporter stated: “Underemployment has far-reaching implications for workers themselves and for the organisations where they work. Understanding underemployment as a multidimensional phenomenon including insufficient hours of employment, limited use of skills at work and low wages is key to design adequate interventions in the UK.”  

The research found that women were more likely to experience underemployment than men in the UK in the three major areas, time, skill and wage.  


Time Underemployment: 

 The prevalence of part-time employment, particularly among women, contributes to time-related underemployment. Many individuals, especially those on zero-hour contracts in women dominated sectors like retail, hospitality, health, and social care, struggle to secure enough work. 

In the UK 5.29 million women were working part time (38% of the population) with many reasons for choosing a part time role. For many looking after children or adults in considered to be the main factor as it allows for them to combine both paid and unpaid work. However, this is not only factors for why women may take these roles; from women 50+ wanting socialisation instead of a need to work, or others needing additional hours for survival either as a second job or being forced into taking a position while looking for full time employment.  

 Part-time roles are often associated with lower quality and pay, creating career penalties, especially for women due to a negative perception from managers which can affect future pay rises and promotions.  

To address this, companies should consider offering flexible working hours which would allow for more women a chance to balance childcare and other duties with full time hours. Alongside companies offering remote working, having a diverse recruitment panel and who have an understanding of women’s issues and offering reasonable adjustments could help prevent women from being compelled to accept part-time and less well-paid roles.  


Skill Underemployment: 

 Skill underemployment pertains to individuals who find themselves overqualified for their positions. Gender disparities emerge, with a widening gap since 2009, suggesting that women are more likely to be overqualified. This raises concerns about biases in hiring processes, where women may face additional expectations in qualifications, how they physically present themselves and the language that they use compared to their male counterparts.  

Women do not get the same ROI for their qualifications compared to men as while companies want to hire job candidates who are both capable and likely to be successful, they also are looking for someone who will be loyal to themselves as well. While men are seen as a flight risk if they are overqualified women are seen to be motivated by their relationship to a company or are escaping a previously discriminatory position and therefore are willing to accept less prestigious role (Harvard Business Review).  

Women who are seen as being seen as overqualified for the position are more likely to be hired compared to overqualified men however this poses a different problem. As it implies that men can be just qualified for the position, but women must have something extra to land the same role.  

Combatting such biases from hiring managers requires a re-evaluation of hiring criteria and a more equitable assessment of qualifications and experience. Hiring teams should make sure that they have a diverse hiring panel, that they use tools such as cv anonymisation, standardise interviews and offer bias training. By doing this they will help to foster a more inclusive workforce and help decrease this type of underemployment.  



Wage Underemployment: 

Wage-related underemployment refers to workers being underpaid for their roles. The study reveals that nearly a third of working women, especially young women, are likely to experience wage underemployment. This phenomenon is not confined to specific industries but extends to managerial and professional positions.  

The pay gap is not just seen for women in part-time roles which will have a lower median pay but also for those in full time positions. The office for National Statistics revealed that in 2023 the pay gap stood at 7.7%. The gap has been declining in the last decade however among high earners the gap is much larger than those who are in lower paid positions 

Wage underemployment is experienced by women in roles such as GPs, marketing and commercial managers or in a sales position still only earn an average of 85p for every pound earned by a man. This stark statistic is a reminder that there is still work to be done to make sure that women are being fairly rewarded for their work and the value they bring to their role.  

Systemic undervaluation of women in the workplace contributes to this pay gap, reinforcing traditional gender roles. Careers dominated by women tend to pay less than those that are male dominated such as teaching and other childcare positions to nursing these positions often require qualifications however the pay does not reflect the skill of the role. Even when men work in a female dominated sector, they are still more likely to be paid more and be in leadership roles such as a head teacher vs a teacher.  

Addressing this issue requires salary transparency and organisational reviews to rectify gender pay disparities. Alongside this there needs to be looked at an institutional level at why these women dominated fields have low pay and why top-level employees in these fields still seem to be men.  


Addressing Underemployment for Women: 

 Efforts to tackle underemployment among women require multifaceted approaches. Encouraging flexible working arrangements, offering pay transparency, providing mentorship and leadership programmes, and implementing inclusive workplace policies are crucial steps. Additionally, investing in affordable childcare and eldercare facilities can alleviate the burden on women, allowing them to pursue meaningful careers without compromising family responsibilities. 

 Addressing bias in the hiring processes is crucial for achieving diversity in the workforce and can help stop women being underemployed. CV anonymisation offers a solution by removing personal information during the initial screening process. Hireserve’s CV anonymisation feature allows companies to choose the level of anonymisation, ensuring fair and unbiased evaluation of candidates. Alongside using this tool employers should have a diverse interview panel, and revise internal policies such as maternity and paternity leave which can lead to more women being hired into the right roles for them.  


Tackling underemployment necessitates concerted efforts from policymakers, employers, and society. Recognising the value of individuals’ skills, breaking down systemic barriers, and fostering an inclusive work environment are vital for creating opportunities that enable everyone to fully utilise their potential in the workforce.  


About the author

Alisha Cadogan