Equality: the time to act is now

29th of March 2018
Equality: the time to act is now

Britain is celebrating 100 years since women first won the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The milestone moment may not have marked the end of their struggle for a voice in state affairs but it did prove pivotal in paving the way for the eventual inclusion of women across all spheres of political life, writes Hartley Milner.

The world of work is proving every bit as tough a nut to crack for women’s rights activists campaigning in the spirit of the suffrage movement today.

Unhelpful stereotypes that continue to define the role of women in society follow them into employment and stalk them throughout their careers. Women must graft harder for recognition than their male colleagues and are less likely to be promoted or earn as much for doing the same work. Men are paid more than twice as much in some industries and huge pay inequities have been exposed in recent months in iconic UK institutions such as the BBC and NHS.

New figures show that the gender pay gap grew faster in Britain last year than in any other of the 28 EU member states and is now the fifth largest after Estonia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria.

So it comes as no surprise that UK women’s groups have been quick to seize upon the suffrage centenary as an opportunity to speed up the momentum for decisive change.

“One of the most powerful things about the centenary is that it reminds us all of our power to change and challenge injustice,” said Jemima Olchawski, head of policy and insight at the Fawcett Society. “By standing together, the women’s movement changed the course of history. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years but there is still plenty to do – women still dominate the lowest paid roles, earn on average 14 per cent less than men when they work full time and are more likely to work in jobs below their skill level.

"And high levels of sexual harassment and violence remain commonplace. The centenary is an opportunity to galvanise the majority of people who support gender equality and want to see change now.

“Traditional gender roles are still very powerful in the workplace. Our labour market is highly segregated, with women making up the majority of those in the lowest paid caring roles whilst men dominate in higher paid roles such as the skilled trades. Men hold the majority of the most senior and powerful roles – there are only five female chief executives in the FTSE 100. It’s often suggested that women need to be bolder in putting themselves forward more or asking for pay rises, but the evidence shows that women who ask for a rise are more likely to have their request turned down and to be judged negatively for asking.

“These inequalities are harmful to women but also represent a massive missed opportunity. If we don’t properly value the work that women do or the skills they bring, we’ll never solve our productivity crisis or meet the UK’s skills needs.”

One report estimates that improving equality in the workforce could add an extra €169 billion to the UK economy. Meanwhile, employers are increasingly seeing an opportunity to improve their bottom line. The Fawcett Society is working with organisations to help them understand the cause and nature of gender imbalance and implement solutions that will end income inequality. And employers have a powerful incentive to act. New legislation requires organisations that employ more than 250 people to publish their gender pay gaps by April 4 or risk unlimited fines and convictions. Olchawski believes this is already focusing employers and motivating them to take action.

“From now on, we’ll all be able to see which organisations are driving change and which are falling behind,” Olchawski said. “But knowing about the gap isn’t enough to close it. We’re urging employers to use the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the figures and to develop a meaningful action plan with ambitious targets.”

One piece of good news is that figures for 2017 from the Office for National Statistics show female employment in the UK at its highest level since records began 40 years ago. Between September and November, 70.8 per cent of women aged 16 to 64 were in work, up from 69.8 per cent a year earlier and compared to just over 53 per cent in employment in 1971 – a rise of 17.8 per cent.

Ending pay inequality

More women, too, are in management positions across all employment sectors and now comprise 34 per cent of senior officials and managers against 25.5 per cent in 2016. Some headway has also been made towards ending pay inequality. For women working full time, the average weekly wage stood at €14.90 per hour in 2017… 9.1 per cent less than the hourly rate of €16.50 earned by men in full-time work. The gender wage gap is now at the lowest since records began in 1997 when it was a whopping 17.4 per cent.

However, campaigners point out that progress has stalled in recent years and the disparity in earnings today is just 0.4 per cent less than in 2012 when women earned 9.5 per cent less than men.

The Young Women’s Trust is calling for 2018 to be a year of action on gender inequality in the UK.
Chief executive Dr Carole Easton said: “2017 was the year that women’s voices started to get more of a hearing…2018 must be the year that people listen and act. One hundred years on from gaining the right to vote, women at work still face huge inequalities. They are more likely than men to be on low pay, in insecure jobs and to face sexual harassment. Discrimination, high childcare costs and gender stereotypes shut many women out of the workplace altogether.

Slow progress

“Progress is proving slow; at this rate, today’s young women will retire before equality in the workplace becomes a reality. We need urgent action to improve young women’s prospects and give them hope for the future. This means giving them the right skills and support to find jobs, ensuring decent and flexible jobs are available, making childcare accessible and affordable and changing the law to ensure under-25s are entitled to the same national living wage as everyone else. This would benefit businesses and the economy too. Without action, today’s young women face a lifetime of inequality.”

The charity recently released the findings of research it commissioned in which 4,000 young people were asked to list in order of importance eight key actions for promoting gender equality in the UK. In the survey, 89 per cent of men and 94 per cent of women said judging women on their ability, not their appearance, was important.

Next came employers and the media needing to do more to treat men and women more equally. Young females consistently gave each action a higher rating than young males and, in particular, thought more women role models in the workplace, getting women into male-dominated industries and closing the gender pay gap were important.

Despite having firm ideas about how to achieve gender equality, young people were not hopeful it would happen soon. More thought scientists will have discovered life on another planet by the time they are 40 than that there will be as many women as male MPs or business leaders, or that gender discrimination in the UK will be a thing of the past.

Eliminate discrimination

Britain made zero progress in tackling inequality between the sexes over the past decade and now lags behind Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and France in the EU’s latest gender equality league table (GEI). The top performing country is Sweden with a score of 82.6 out of 100, with 100 signifying complete gender equality. The most improved country is Italy, which made a big leap forward and gained 12.9 points to place itself on rung 14 of the ladder. Greece moved to the bottom with 50 points.

On the face of it, Britain’s score of 71.5 points compares favourably with the EU average of 66.2. However, the EU’s rating is just four points higher than 10 years ago and women’s rights campaigners say it only serves to highlight the woeful progress made since gender equality was enshrined as one of the European Union’s founding values. It goes back to 1957 when the principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome. The World Economic Forum suggests that, globally, the gender gap would take 100 years to close at the current rate of progress…provoking a defiant response from the European Women’s Lobby (EWL).

“Women are not willing to wait 100 years for equality,” says EWL secretary general Joanna Maycock. “It is high time for the EU to act decisively to accelerate the pace of change, to show that we are serious about the rights of all citizens. The EWL will continue to use its collective voice to resist, collaborate and demand equality for every last woman.”


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