Creating room at the top will do very little unless we make workplaces more hospitable to women. We don’t just need women in non-exec boardroom roles; we must have gender equality at management level too. In Britain women currently form just 22% of top level public administration roles and 31% for second tier positions (compared to Europe-wide figures of 29% and 37% respectively).
It’s still too difficult to juggle having children with having a job. Parenthood means women tend to ‘drop down’ to part time work – which is 39% worse paid per hour – or leave the workplace altogether. According to reports, the difficulty of staying in full time work after having children accounts for a combined 37% of the gender pay gap.
Once their children are grown up women have often been out of work too long to return, or else are forced into unskilled jobs. Since the recession the proportion of women aged 50-64 who are long term unemployed has gone up 41% – meaning women who should be in the boardroom or on the front bench are instead forced out of the workplace altogether. This is a breathtaking waste of talent.
Meaningful part time and flexible work
Three quarters of part time workers are women. Emma Stewart MBE, co-founder of the Timewise Foundation, calls the growth of a quality part time jobs market “the single most important action required in increasing maternal employment [and] reducing gender inequality”. A three year study by Timewise found that most women want – and need – to return to work, but that there aren’t enough opportunities. ‘Forced downgrading’ was common.
- In 2013 Camden became Britain’s first Timewise council. As an area of the economy 65% staffed by women the public sector must follow Camden and lead by example, so that state-funded organisations in the UK adopt a more flexible ethos.
- The private sector has an 8% larger gender pay gap than the public sector. This is not because it is more sexist but because it’s more driven by the bottom line. We need companies that have provided flexible and part time work to be more vocal in explaining what they’ve done and why it’s worked.
- We must work harder in all sectors to grow the flexible employment market. Timewise have already set up a part time jobs site. Other recruiters and HR departments must do the same.
Britain already does reasonably well in this area, with better than average provisions for flexible work. However, we continue to lag a long way behind Germany and most of Scandinavia, and still have – worse than other member states – a culture where people are expected to work beyond their contracted hours.
- As a country with an ultra-competitive workplace we must make sure women aren’t forced out of child-friendly working patterns by the pressure to keep up.
Maternity and childcare
At present the UK has the lowest maternity pay in Europe – a statistic which led the TUC’s Frances O’Grady to call us the ‘scrooge of Europe’. British mothers get just a month and a half’s statutory leave on 90% pay, compared to the EU average of 43 weeks. This forces mothers to choose between returning to work earlier than they’d like or staying at home and accepting a downgraded position when they do go back.
- We must keep pressure on the government to ensure their Children and Families Bill addresses this, so that mothers aren’t forced to choose between their 6 week old baby and their job. Much better maternity arrangements are needed.
We must also provide proper childcare, so that no parent, regardless of their background or income, is sidelined by parenthood. Cuts to Sure Start nurseries have undermined this, and have had a knock-on effect for women.
- With childcare worries forming one of the biggest barriers stopping women return to work, we must ring fence Sure Start and have a renewed effort to provide high quality, affordable childcare.