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60 years later and women still losing out at work: How?

Kathleen Brooks, Director of Research UK,

The Queen’s reign on isn’t the only Diamond Jubilee this year, it is also an historic week for women in the workplace. This time 60 years ago Charles Pannell, the MP for Leeds West, was making an impassioned plea in the House of Commons for equal pay for women in the civil service. His arguments were heeded and women were awarded equal pay with men in the public sector in 1952.

But while the UK has flourished under a female monarch (and one with four children) the same can’t be said for women’s pay cheques. This anniversary is particularly symbolic as more women than ever are losing their jobs.

More than a million women are now claiming the dole and looking for work, the highest level for nearly a quarter of a century. Back in December when the jobless rate shot up by 48,000, women accounted for two thirds of that rise.

Women are getting hit hard by the double whammy of rising unemployment and cuts in the public sector, which disproportionately affect women as two thirds of public sector employees are female. According to the Fawcett Society (named after the famous suffragist Milicent Fawcett) 70% of the £18billion of cuts to the social security and welfare bill will affect women.

But what about women who have managed to hold onto their jobs? If you work in the private sector, you may be more protected from the public sector axe, however you are unlikely to become a director of the company you work in or to get a seat on the board compared with your male colleagues.

If you work in the legal sector your chance of becoming a partner are slim. In the US for instance, although a similar number of men and women have graduated from law school over the last 20 years, approx. 20% of female lawyers ever make it as a partner. It is likely that the same is true here in the UK.

Since the Davies report last year (compiled by Lord Davies, the former head of Standard Chartered bank) the number of women on the boards of FTSE companies has risen from 12.5% in 2010 to 15% last year. However, this comes after Lord Davies threatened to force quotas of female board members if the companies didn’t double the number themselves by 2016. Thus, the recent progress still looks fairly glacial.

[Related feature: Quotas won’t work]

Still paying for old prejudices

Although there is no legislation on equality of opportunity, since 1970 there is equality on pay that also covers the private sector. Yet, why do men still earn more than women in 90% of job categories, and how can this be allowed when equal pay is written in the law books?

The Fawcett Society argues that discrimination, poor quality part-time and flexible work and the historic under-valuing of women’s work all contribute to the gender pay gap. However, the Society also argues that there is a flaw in the legal system that allows women’s pay to fall behind men.

Current legislation puts the onus on individual employees to challenge unfair pay practices in their workplace. However, the time, energy and money that it costs to bring pay discrimination cases to court mean that few women do this.

Instead the Fawcett Society and other equality bodies have called for the government to require organisations to audit their earnings and bring any gender pay disparities into the open. However, this radical action was not included in 2010’s Equality Act, which consolidated the Equal Pay Act of 1970 with the Sex Discrimination Act, the Race Relations Act and the Disability Discrimination Act.

Instead the Act included a new term, which suggests that pay protection schemes are “capable of being lawful”, but doesn’t ingrain them into the statute book.

[Related story: Gender pay gap to take ‘98 years’ to close]

A crucial time

In the current economic backdrop women need to be even more careful that efforts towards equal pay are not thrown by the wayside. It took nearly 30 years for the Motion passed on 19th May 1920, which declared that it was “expedient” that women in the public services were awarded equal pay, to see the light of day. Between 1920 and 1952 the economic depression in the UK hindered efforts at gender equality in the civil service.

Since our economy is back in a double-dip recession for the first time in 30 years women must make sure that the big business lobby doesn’t quash legislative attempts to enforce equal pay for men and women with talk about it costing too much, how it would make doing business in the UK even more expensive and the need to cut red tape.

I don’t like red tape in the same way most men in the City don’t, but I won’t let it be used as an excuse to pay the bloke sitting opposite me more money.  Women need to stand up for themselves in the workplace and if they get a sniff they are being paid less than their male counterparts they should go straight to their boss – the straight talking may even give their careers a boost.

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