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Why New Labour can’t close the gender gap

This article is over 17 years, 5 months old
Women still face lower pay and poorer prospects at work than men. JUDY COX looks at the figures—and the political factors behind them
Issue 1914

NEW LABOUR may have given up on tackling the growing gulf between rich and poor, but it still pretends to be progressive on issues of inequality between men and women.

Yet seven years after Tony Blair came to power—and 30 years since the Equal Pay Act was passed—women still face systematic discrimination at work and earn lower wages than men.

Blair acknowledges this is “unacceptable”. But his only answer is to set up a Women and Work Commission to look into the issue.

The commission won’t report for at least a year, after the next general election. He’s effectively kicking the issue into the long grass.

That’s because the pay gap between men and women is intricately linked to much deeper political and economic issues.

Low pay, “flexible” working hours and a lack of affordable childcare all contribute to the picture. And all these factors are exacerbated by New Labour’s pro-business,

pro-market ideology.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average woman in full time work today earns four fifths of the wages of the male worker.

This situation is even worse for part time work.

On average, part time women workers earn three fifths of the wages of part time male workers.

And these statistics have barely moved in ten years., a website that monitors salaries, showed that the pay gap exists across all regions and sectors. In sales, for example, women earn 38 percent less than men, while in banking the gap is 30 percent.

We are often told that men and women are equal in today’s society. So why are women still systematically paid less than men?

One reason is that some bosses are sexist. An Equal Opportunities Commission report found that sexist and unlawful pay discrimination accounts for up to a half of the pay gap.

Job segregation is another important factor. Some 60 percent of women work in low paid occupations, which include catering, education, health, cleaning and hairdressing.

Women outnumber men in clothing manufacture, one of the lowest paid jobs in Britain.

Men earn an average of just £247 a week while women earn £212.

Segregation also means women are clustered in the lower grades at work. Women come up against a “glass ceiling” which blocks them from being promoted.

The top 32 FTSE 100 companies have no women directors on their boards. A Labour Research list of the 62 company directors on £1.5 million or more includes just one woman.

Even the tiny minority of women on huge salaries don’t escape discrimination. A series of high profile legal cases have shown how sexist bullying is routine in London’s giant financial corporations.

In the construction industry the pay gap between male and female managers is 27 percent. One women in a senior position told Construction News, “I find management sexism harder to deal with than the dirty calendars on site.”

If women in high status jobs face discrimination, it’s much worse for women doing more typical, lower status jobs.

The quarter of a million women working in the civil service receive three quarters of the pay of their male colleagues. Over 90 percent of women working in the civil service in Britain earn less than the national average wage.

A fourth factor is women’s responsibility for childcare. Juggling work and children means they often have to work part time or take time off work. It also means that many cannot work long hours or travel long distances to find a job.

The government’s Women’s Unit estimates that the “female forfeit” costs a women £240,000 in lost earnings over her lifetime. Women with children can lose another £140,000.

But women are fighting back. They are a central part of the working class—and a growing political force inside the working class movement.

Anger at unequal pay has led to unions launching a series of high profile sex discrimination cases.

Unison is taking up the case of thousands of women council workers who have been paid less than men for work of equal value.

The PCS union helped 2,000 prison service workers, mainly women, to win a landmark equal pay case last month. The case dragged on for five years.

One of the workers, Amanda Bailey, said, “If I have one thing to say to people in the same position as me, it is do something about it.

“I am proud of what I am doing. It’s hard work and you may have to face your fears, but it’s worth it for you and the women who will benefit from what you had the strength to do.”

As well as going to court, women are taking more direct action. Around 4,000 Scottish nursery nurses went on all-out strike for decent pay earlier this year.

Some 350 British Airways check-in staff, mostly women, took strike action last summer to defend working conditions.

Working class women do mind the pay gap—and they are increasingly willing to do something about it.

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