Opinion: Confronting gender inequalities in the workplace

Handshake man - womenI am proud to belong to a party that strives to represent the unrepresented, defend the rights of minorities and works hard to achieve equality for all. Our work in government to tackle inequality has improved the lives of many and made society as a whole fairer. But, whilst we have made real progress in improving the deal for women in the workplace, it remains unacceptable that in the 21st century women remain underrepresented at the top and suffer significant pay disadvantages throughout many organisations.

At conference in Glasgow, the Federal Policy Committee will present its policy paper Expanding Opportunity, Unlocking Potential. A paper that addresses, amongst many other vital issues, the lack of women on boards and ongoing gender pay disparities. I wanted to take the opportunity in this blog to outline the difficulties women in the workplace still face and set out what measures we propose in the paper to address them.

We were clear from the start of our working group that continuing the drive for equality in the workplace is not just the right thing to do morally, but also makes good economic sense. Removing barriers to success, increasing diversity, reducing pay gaps, and balancing boardroom teams not only boosts morale and well-being but improves productivity to boost the bottom line for businesses. Increasing transparency, eliminating pay gaps and unlawful discrimination avoids tribunals costs and reputational damage, and improves corporate governance to make today’s workplaces fit for the future.

The gender pay gap remains a very real and persistent problem in modern Britain. The disparity in pay between male and female workers as measured by median hourly earnings is almost 20%. This imbalance is even starker at the top – the Chartered Management Institute has calculated that the average female executive earns £10,060 less than, and is awarded half the bonuses received by, her male peers in the same type of role. But the discrimination of women in the workplace is not limited to pay. A glass ceiling persists, for while there has been a significant improvement recently, the percentage of women on boards in major companies is still too.

Various challenges prevent women from reaching their potential in the workplace: gaining the management skills to rise further in organisations, the affordability of childcare, the lack of flexible working practices, limited opportunities for those in part-time work, and how confident women feel to enter and remain in traditionally male dominated employment and indeed outright discrimination all play a part. Additionally, the majority of professional occupations associated with higher levels of pay are generally more populated by men than women. The reasons for the gender pay gap and the lack of women in senior positions are therefore numerous and complex and will not be solved overnight but we believe the proposals in the policy paper will make a start.

On pay disparities, we support the Government’s Think, Act, Report initiative which encourages employers to identify barriers to gender inequality and to collect relevant data from across the company. The document was a step in the right direction but for us doesn’t go far enough. Collecting and publishing information on gender equality, including the pay gap, is a vital step both to highlight bad practice and to ensure employers are aware when there is a problem. We think gender pay transparency should be mandatory for large companies.

A barrier to both equal pay and promotion that tends to impact women more than men is the cost of childcare. The cost of childcare for a year for two children between the ages of two and five is estimated to be £11,700 – a significant amount of money that can discourage a parent, often a woman, to return to work.  Our paper proposed extending the free childcare already available to parents with young children and I am pleased to see this proposal has made it into the pre-manifesto.

Having more women on boards is not only important in its own right but it is also vital for young women and girls to see and be inspired by successful female role models. Women still remain underrepresented on boards but we have made progress from a low base. Since the Davies report set the target of achieving 25% by 2015, women account for 21% of board positions in FTSE 100 companies up from 12.5% in 2010. Some European countries have introduced mandatory quotas to speed up this process – we are yet to be convinced such measures are effective or desirable.  So for now given the progress that is being made without quotas we are reluctant to mandate companies to appoint women on boards. However we are clear we need more women in leadership positions, so if we don’t see continued improvement we would consider them.

Conference will be debating the issues raised in this blog and the wider proposals in the full policy paper Expanding Opportunity, Unlocking Potential on Monday 6th October from 15.45 to 17.15.  Please do join us.

* Belinda Brooks-Gordon was #3 on the EU list in 2014, was a Cambridgeshire County Councillor, and is now an elected member of ALDE Council.

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3 Comments

  • the free childcare

    It’s not ‘free childcare’. It’s childcare paid for by the taxes of those of us who do not have children; you know, the ones having to do the actual work while the parents are having their generous paid leave.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Oct '14 - 1:23pm

    This is a good article. We should be having a positive debate about gender equality in the workplace and elsewhere, but many of us have had serious problems with the nature of the debate and some of the policies, and it has inhibited progress.

    I don’t believe in leaving sexism against women go unchecked, which many do, but the problem is we need to identify real sexism and not accuse all gender differences as sexist.

    I feel that the party is beginning to “get it” and the future should hold a more positive debate where the real “enemies” can be targeted and sustainable progress is made.

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