Give the legal framework teeth and change perceptions of gender roles
In 2008, the UK ranked 13th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which measures and tracks gender-based disparities in countries around the world. By 2014, the UK had slipped to 26th place. Although it recovered somewhat in 2015, coming 18th out of 145, it still languishes at 43rd place for economic participation and opportunity and 62nd for wage equality.
While this is a pretty poor show and no doubt dents our collective perception of ourselves as a modern, developed, reasonably egalitarian society, it is worth remembering that 18th place out of 145 is not too bad. We’re a long way from Yemen, for example, which comes 145th overall and for economic participation.
The participation of women in the labour market – both those with and without dependent children – has been steadily increasing over several decades and women’s employment is at its highest level since records began in 1971.
Persistent pay gap
But greater participation does not mean the battle for gender equality has been won. The gender pay gap stubbornly persists, currently standing at 19.2 per cent for all employees and getting noticeably wider as women get older.
Some of this can be explained by the types of work women often do. They are still over-represented in what are often called the ‘5 Cs’ – clerical, cashiering, caring, cleaning, and catering – all low-paid sectors with few prospects for promotion.
Women’s work is all too often hampered and defined by their caring responsibilities. Research this year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 women are forced out of their jobs every year due to pregnancy discrimination.
Recent TUC research found that many older women reduce their working hours or leave their jobs altogether because of caring for grandchildren, often as well as caring for partners or elderly parents.
These problems are often exacerbated by an increasingly casualised labour market. Women agency workers or those working on zero hours contracts are even more likely to face pregnancy discrimination, for example.
Barriers to justice
While progress is slow, society is changing and gender equality is more attainable than it was 40 years ago. Legislation is needed to create a more equal society – be it legislation for equal pay audits or stronger employment rights for workers on agency or zero hours contracts. But the fact that the Equal Pay Act has been in existence for 45 years and we still have a gender pay gap of nearly 20 per cent shows us that legislation is not a panacea. In order for the law to be effective, it must be enforceable. This means that the government must enforce the law – that is, impose sanctions on employers who discriminate against women – and barriers to justice must be removed. Currently women must pay £1,200 to take a discrimination case against their employer to a tribunal. If the law is to have any effect at all, it must not be placed out of reach of all but the wealthy.
Changing attitudes needs to start young. Trying to encourage girls into careers in science or engineering at the point when they choose their GCSEs is too late. Work to break down stereotypes and broaden young people’s horizons needs to start in primary school before prejudices become entrenched.
Finally, gender equality is not just about changing women’s working lives – it’s also about changing men’s. Increasing paternity pay, encouraging more men to take up flexible and part-time working, and breaking down barriers to men wanting to pursue traditionally female careers such as childcare, are all part of the solution.
Overhaul equal pay legislation and reform welfare and tax systems
As a young child in the 1960s, I was awakened to the inequalities that existed between working men and women by seeing on television the brave women at the Dagenham Ford plant striking for equal rights in pay and grading. I was gripped by their articulate and passionate pleas and proud when the UK emerged as an early global leader in passing legislation to promote equal pay for women (in 1970) and sex equality at work (in 1975).
However, increasingly since that time my pride has turned to frustration as, despite significant progress over the past 40 years, the UK has fallen from its role as a leader in equalities, now being overtaken by many other nations with better track records of gender equality at work.
The reason for this poor ranking lies in the fact that the old challenges of occupational segregation, unemployment and the pay gap persist in framing the working lives of many women in the UK. Women are concentrated in feminised work, which in turn is often poorly paid and vulnerable to economic fluctuations.
The pay gap and rates of unemployment are even greater for women from ethnic minorities, women returning to work after childbirth and older women, and women can also expect significantly lower pensions than men. Further, over a third of women are now employed at a skill level below their qualifications and experience and one in eight women are employed on zero hours contracts.
Of real concern is that more young women than young men are not in any form of employment, education or training (408,000 as compared to 320,000).
A four-pronged attack
A gloomy picture indeed! If more is not done to address these longstanding challenges, the UK will continue to waste talent, weakening the social and economic inclusion vital for an engaged and successful society. What can be done to get the UK back on track? Our research pointed to four key prongs of attack. First, there needs to be legislative reform.
The Equal Pay Act designed in 1970 is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be overhauled to tackle the causes of pay inequality in the 21st century.
Gender pay audits should be statutory for all businesses, the tax system should be urgently reformed to remove childcare from taxable pay and quotas should be established for women in apprenticeships, good quality part-time work, board membership and employee representation. Flexible and part-time working should be extended to all employees and parental leave should be brought into line with the best practice of other European countries.
Second, there needs to be welfare and social services reform. All carers, whether formal or informal, should receive remuneration and support and a national childcare service is needed for children up to the age of 14. Careers guidance needs a dramatic shake-up and improved funding, and educational subject guidance needs strengthening to encourage more girls and women into the better-paid STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions.
Enhancing the pipeline
Thirdly, we need workplace-led reform. Flexible working should be available to all and demonstrated from the top by senior management. Equality and diversity training should be mandatory for all and a senior-level gender champion should be instituted. Talent pipeline management should ensure women of all ages gain access to training and promotion.
Finally, to ensure success and sustainability, there needs to be active and constant monitoring, evaluation and campaigning. We need to keep up the pressure such that the UK is once again seen as a beacon of excellence in gender equality.