Jo Swinson MP writes… I’m proud to say we’ve finally got the Tories on board with gender pay gap measures.

In the final days of this Government Lib Dems are still delivering our agenda against the odds, and against Conservative obstruction.

Under the coalition government the gender pay gap had fallen to its lowest level, at just under 20% – but this is still 19.1% too high. Despite our high levels of women’s employment the UK has the 8th highest gender pay gap in the EU.

Not only is the gender pay gap socially wrong in modern society, but economically it’s nonsensical not to reward our most talented female employees properly. We should value the contribution of women and men in the workplace equally, so our goal has to be eliminating the pay gap completely.

As a Business Minister and Minister for Women, I have worked very hard to persuade my Coalition colleagues of the virtues of tough action to tackle this long-term inequality. Their traditional resistance makes it all the more remarkable that Nick Clegg has, in the last few weeks of our term, secured a government amendment that guarantees all large businesses will have to publish the difference between average pay for their male and female staff. So today (Tuesday) I will proudly vote for our party’s manifesto commitment – for large companies to publish the difference in average pay between male and female employees – to become law.

This is a significant win for women, and a political win for Liberal Democrats in Government. Amendments to the Small Business Bill, being debated in the House of Commons today (Tuesday), will fast-track our manifesto plans for gender pay transparency within the next 12 months. This will mean large companies – over 250 employees – will be legally required to publish the average pay of their male and female staff. It is our intention to create pressure from staff and customers to account for and close any pay gap that exists between men and women in large businesses. Women will know whether they are being properly rewarded for their endeavours: a situation that is good for competitive businesses and good for the economy.

As readers of Lib Dem Voice will know, we have argued for mandatory pay transparency since before the coalition was formed. We were the first major political party to commit to enforcing gender pay transparency by law. Labour might try to claim now that they would have done this in 2010 but actually their proposal was for voluntary publication for four years. This was something our champion for women, Lynne Featherstone objected to at the time – arguing against Labour’s delay that “pay audits are necessary and must be mandatory. We cannot wait another four years… voluntary pay audits are like waiting for Godot.”

In the wake of entrenched Conservative opposition, and in the context of Labour’s commitments while in government, we had to agree to try a voluntary approach first.  We did so only on the condition that the decision would remain under review, and if this approach did not lead to more companies publishing the difference in pay between men and women, mandatory reporting would be introduced for large companies. During our time in government just five companies have chosen to publish their gender pay gap voluntarily.  While I take my hat off to those who do – this is just not good enough.

Of course, the gender pay gap is not exactly an issue that the Conservative Party gets out of bed for. They were content to kick this issue into the long grass time and time again. Nick and I have made increasingly urgent appeals to our Conservative colleagues to address this. Which is why, today I am proud that we will go further than I expected. By securing a government amendment, Nick Clegg has successfully ensured that ministers on the government payroll will vote in favour of gender pay transparency, despite the Conservatives’ consistent efforts to block the proposals over the life of the coalition.

I could speculate about why the Tories have caved just weeks before the election – maybe the International Women’s Day celebrations caught the PM in a jovial mood? Or perhaps he feared that history (or the voters) would judge him for being on the wrong side of this argument.  It may be that with some help from the Liberal Democrats, he simply read the political runes and didn’t want to countenance any risk to the successful passage of the Small Business Bill as the firm deadline of Parliament’s dissolution approached. Liberal Democrats can be proud that we have been the drivers of reforms to modernise the workplace to give women a fairer chance to get to the top of the career ladder. By extending flexible working to all employees, introducing Shared Parental Leave and revolutionising childcare, we are ensuring that there is greater equality at home and at work.

We can also be proud that – thanks to our term of stability in government – there are more women in work than ever before and women’s gross weekly earnings have increased between 2013 and 2014. Additionally we have banned pay secrecy clauses and introduced mandatory pay audits for companies that lose equal pay claims. The Government is also committed to tackling occupational segregation, and the outdated view that certain jobs are for “men-only”. Only 13% of engineers in this country are women – substantially lower than other European countries like Latvia, Sweden and Bulgaria. Through initiatives like “Your Life” we are encouraging young girls to get into STEM-related careers.

We have achieved a lot, but there is still much more to do. Equal pay and better gender representation in business is good for the economy as well as helping to create a fairer society. So any future coalition that contains Liberal Democrats will ensure this remains front and centre of our efforts in government.


* Jo Swinson is Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, and was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister from 2012-15.

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  • Whilst men and women should always be paid the same for the same job, men will always have a disproportionate number of the most senior jobs. This is because those jobs need people who do little other than work and take almost no time off which is not compatible with having time off to have a baby.

    Whilst a few women do forgo having a family in order to be able to compete in these environments and not be at a disadvantage most don’t, because most people realise there is more to life than money and more happiness to be found outside the high flying business world than within it.

    Lots of people get angry about this but they might as well get angry that the sky is blue. Nature is the way it is regardless of how angry reality might make us and how unfair we believe it to be.

    Some women do manage both but if they have children whilst climbing to the top they are at a disadvantage to men and therefore less women succeed. Unfortunately I don’t believe this can be corrected by legislation either.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Mar '15 - 7:11pm

    Thanks for writing to us Jo. I want to keep the tone polite on this debate and also keep it short below-the-line. I’m personally only committed to ending extreme inequality, rather than forcing equality of outcomes. This is where my gut instinct lies, so it is not just an intellectual position.

    That said, I think it would be great if the pay gap one day ended, but I want it to be through merit, rather than what I see as possible positive pay discrimination.

    That is all I really want to say on it for now, best of luck and I hope you along with lots of Lib Dems win on the 7th of May.

  • Why are you comparing part-time women against full-time men? I’d expect an supposed expert to know better. But then, you’re an MP and almost entirely agenda driven.

  • Jo, I am really pleased you haveachieved this. Transparency is a necessary start if we are to get to a point where men and women have an equal opportunity to succeed and earn more, whether they choose to have a pause along the way or not.

    David – you do understand that men can take time off to look after children too, right?! And thanks to shared parental leave, it’s easier than ever? Us males should be helping make all this happen, not repeating outdated ideas about what is “natural”!

  • Tony Dawson 25th Mar '15 - 8:27am

    Well done, Jo!

  • @ Mark. Nope I didn’t know men and women could have equal time off, well done on getting that made law. That will benefit the few who actually want to do things differently to the traditional way.

    I actually mentioned to my wife that when we have kids we should both take 6 months off to make it fair and she really didn’t like that idea at all, so unfortunately for me I won’t be getting part of her paternity leave.

    I don’t blame her though, most women with new babies will miss their babies terribly if they go back to work really soon after giving birth, they will miss their babies more than the husband will in most cases. And the babies would also miss their mums more than their dads.

    Women are also generally better at looking after brand new babies than men are, which is why in most cases they do most off it when the baby is just tiny.

    But these year long gaps during a career do make it that little bit harder to climb to the very top and that is just the way things are and you can’t change it because you can’t change nature.

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