Tip-toeing around the women’s pay swindle

Many employers in the private sector will breathe a sigh of relief if they read the findings of Shaping a Fairer Future, the final report of the government’s Women and Work Commission (WWC).

For they have been well and truly let off the hook. It is not industry that is to blame for the gap between men and women’s pay, but poor careers advice for girls.

No wonder the Confederation of British Industry describes the report’s analysis of a social injustice that exacerbates poverty, wastes abilities and generates stress as a “win-win” situation.

The WWC was instructed to produce a consensus, no dissenting voices were allowed. The result is therefore predictable – a dilution of views to the point of irrelevance. The WWC has also avoided one of the most important issues of all, at least for those in social care: namely, that the problem is not that young girls choose jobs that involve helping others but that these occupations are paid so shamefully little because they are done by women.

Two-thirds of females, when they first choose their career, are unaware that they will earn significantly less because they are in industries segregated on grounds of gender, according to a survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

The WWC rightly demands improved careers advice to stop the gender stereotyping that pushes girls into the “c” jobs – caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work – as well as teaching and health. But all the careers advice in the world will not detract from the fact that people are needed to do those jobs.

Last year, in an inquiry into occupational segregation, the EOC found that 80 per cent of girls and 55 per cent of boys said they would or might be interested in learning to do a non-traditional job. One in four boys said “caring work” sounded interesting or very interesting and 12 per cent of girls were interested in construction. But less than 3 per cent of child care apprenticeships are male and less than 2 per cent of construction apprenticeships are female.

Boys are undoubtedly even further put off when they find that rates of pay in “caring work” are unduly influenced by the basic minimum wage – unlike the rate for a plumber which can soar to £100 an hour.

Why the “caring” rates are low is partly because women have been conditioned to believe that a rock-bottom wage is the price they must pay to have hours that suit their commitments to dependants.

The WWC argues that the best way to tackle the pay gap is to persuade an army of young women to divert into traditionally male trades and skills. Even if some girls are wooed into, say, engineering by newly energised careers advisers (and don’t then resign several years later, pushed out by the sexism not unknown in the male-dominated workplace and inadequately acknowledged by the WWC), some will still choose the caring professions because that is what they wish to do: a sense of vocation is still worth something.

The WWC lacks boldness. It fails to demand a proper pay structure in the female-dominated industries, beginning with a significant rise in the minimum wage. It has also failed to recommend that the obligatory pay audits now carried out in the public sector should apply to the private sector, allowing discrimination not only within companies but also between sectors to be laid bare. Knowledge often acts as a catalyst to action.

Tackling inequality is multifaceted. On that, the WWC is correct. But without the political will (how can this government have credibility when it expects Meg Munn, the women’s minister, to work for nothing?) and next to no investment – the £20m the WWC has recommended for its initiatives would barely launch a new bar of soap never mind “change a culture” – this amounts to a few faltering steps on the road to equality when several dozen giant strides forward are needed.

Yvonne Roberts  is a writer and journalist

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