When it comes to breaking the glass ceiling, some women are further away than others. Often overlooked are women who have a criminal conviction, who face significant barriers to rebuilding their lives after a conviction.
Women and the criminal justice system
Each year, thousands of women come through prisons in the UK – many for non-violent offences and short sentences. A significant proportion of women in prison have endured more severe offences than the ones they are charged with. Over half of women in prison have experienced domestic violence, while 53% have disclose instances of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during their childhood.
Prison also isn’t a safe place for women. Last year, women made up 29% of all self-harm incidents in prison despite making up only 4% of the prison population. This is a mental health crisis and women deserve safety and support.
Last year, women made up 29% of all self-harm incidents in prison despite making up only 4% of the prison population.
For women, it can be incredibly difficult to reintegrate into society after leaving the criminal justice system. Women are more likely than men to be released from prison into homelessness. Women also struggle more to than men to find work after release, usually due to competing priorities such as regaining custody of children or struggling to access adequate mental health support.
Although prisons are supposed to rehabilitate people, in practice, the level and quality of support can vary. Not only does prison create glaring a gap in your CV, it can also set you many steps back at a time when it’s important to get your life back on track.
Not only does prison create glaring a gap in your CV, it can also set you many steps back at a time when it’s important to get your life back on track.
These challenges are even tougher for Black and other racially minoritised women, as our ‘Worst-Case Scenario’ research found. Because of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, racially minoritised women are more likely to be policed, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to harsher punishments, which means their criminal records tend to last longer.
A focus on employment for women with convictions
Employment is one of the key drivers of preventing reoffending. As well as income, a job gives structure to life and a reason to get up in the morning. It offers a shared purpose with colleagues, a common mission, and motivation for change. It means that someone can use their talents, learn new skills and feel useful and appreciated, all of which can help to positively shift self-perception and aspiration.
As well as income, a job gives structure to life and a reason to get up in the morning.
What we find through our work with women is that many of them have built entire careers before coming into contact with the criminal justice system. But due to their criminal records, they can be barred from re-entering their industries, necessitating a career change.
Employer prejudice and stigma
A big part of this is employer discrimination against people with a criminal past. Our own research finds that while employer attitudes are becoming more progressive (almost twice as many employers would, hypothetically, recruit someone with a conviction compared to 2010) there is still a long way to go to break one of the few remaining seemingly acceptable employer prejudices.
Many employers are also uninformed about the realities of the justice system and who gets swept into it. Research shows that the more someone understands about the realities of offending, the more open they are to hiring and working with people with convictions. And once they do hire people with convictions, an overwhelming majority reports a good experience.
In addition to employer attitudes, women can be excluded from the careers they are interested it because of Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) checks, especially for sectors like education, nursing, and care work which require enhanced checks. This impacts women more than men, as women tend to work more in these sectors. Many women are filtered out this way, even if their convictions aren't relevant to the roles they apply to. This has contributed to situations like the nursing shortage during the pandemic, where qualified nurses are barred from the job because of their criminal records.
What can we do about it?
These barriers to employment leave women with convictions either out of work entirely or surviving on precarious or underpaid jobs. Ironically, this in turn places them at a higher risk of offending and trapping them in a cycle of criminalisation that can be almost impossible to break.
A job, an income, and a sense of purpose is fundamental for women to move forward with their lives after a conviction. If you agree that women deserve a fair chance at employment, please consider supporting Working Chance.