The gender pay gap in Britain is proving hard to eradicate. Over 40 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force Britain has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the European Union. In 2012 women earned on average less than 18.6 per cent less per hour than men with women working full-time earning 14.9 per cent or 85 per cent for every £1 that a man earns. The recession and the harsh policies of the coalition government have hit women hard.
There is a raft of measures that would reduce the gender pay gap, from paying women in low-paid jobs such as cleaning, catering and social care a living wage to making childcare more affordable, implementing flexible working to mandatory equal pay audits. The last Labour government missed a major opportunity to require, as opposed to merely encourage, employers to undertake mandatory equal pay audits. The case for introducing legislation is compelling. Discrimination in awarding bonuses, evaluating job roles and promotion women still persists, despite accountancy, law and management consultancy being popular career choices for female graduates. The gender pay gap is 33 per cent in the City of London, rising to 55 per cent in financial services. Mandatory equal pay audits, affordable childcare and a much higher minimum wage are essential, but not sufficient to close the gender pay gap.
What is now needed is a relentless focus on encouraging more girls and young women to study and pursue careers in science, technology and engineering. Over the last 40 years there has been a huge increase in the number of women becoming accountants, lawyers and doctors (although the medical profession is highly segregated with the majority of women opting to become GPs as it is an easier career to combine with family life than hospital medicine).
We need to see a similar revolution in the number of women becoming engineers, IT consultants, research scientists and architects. Careers in science and technology are well paid and offer excellent career prospects but the number of women working in construction, IT, manufacturing and engineering companies is tiny. Even in the public sector, which has a good record in employing women at senior levels, there are very few women leading departments running waste and recycling services, transportation and highways and property.
The challenge facing schools, colleges, universities, professional bodies and employers is huge. Thirty years after WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) was founded the proportion of women working in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and maths) is a mere 13 per cent. This is not surprising when nearly half of all state schools did not have a single girl studying A level physics. Apprenticeships are heavily occupationally segregated with girls much more likely to take apprenticeships in hair and beauty than engineering and car mechanics. Girls are much more likely to study maths and physics to advanced level if they have been to all girls’ schools.
The quality of careers advice, never great in the first place, urgently needs reviewing. It is important that girls are given the opportunity to find out about non-traditional careers and do not close down their options by restricting their choice of subjects. Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership runs a ‘construction challenge’ for secondary school pupils so that they gain an insight into the range of careers in the building and property trade.
The way work experience placements are organised needs to change. The standard practice is for young people to choose a placement according to jobs that they are interested in so boys and girls choose along traditional gender lines with girls going to hairdressers and boys to garages. A different approach would be to view placements as ‘an experience of work’ and to place girls and boys with employers in different sectors, so girls get to find out what it is like to work in a manufacturing business while boys see what working with older people involves.
The media has a crucial role to play, from featuring women scientists and IT professionals on radio and television programmes to the women who are profiled in young women’s magazines. One is much more likely to read about women working in fashion and the charity sector than in transport and construction.
The next Labour government needs to act to encourage many more women to study and pursue careers in science, technology and IT. Not only will such a transformation of the British workforce significantly reduce the gender pay gap, but the British economy will be more successful as a result.
Sally Prentice is cabinet member for culture and leisure in Lambeth. She tweets @SallyPrentice
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