25 Sep 2013

Equality street? Women, work – and the slow path to success

The labour market is changing. More women are in work, more are breadwinners, there is a revolution in flexible working from home. But as a new survey shows, it is far from equal yet.

Board meeting image (getty)

It is a long time since the 70s: platform shoes, the Bee Gees, the first decimal coins. And very few women in the workplace – let alone in any kind of senior positions. Now, though, the Office for National Statistics has charted how far things have changed over the past 40 years.

The ONS report covers everything from relative employment rates to social factors which have changed the nation’s culture at work: children, part time employment, freelancing, working from home.

It shows that while women have made huge strides in numerous fields, in terms of equal opportunities with men, there is still a long way to go. Men have consistently higher employment rates, and still dominate professions associated with higher levels of pay.

As for the top 10 per cent of earners, men make up the majority, although there are signs that the balance is changing, with a lower gender gap for those aged under 30.

Opportunity knocks

It is not hard to picture that nostalgic scene of 70s life, in the slightly over-exposed graininess of an oft-repeated sitcom on TV. Women were starting to become more assertive, more economically independent.

But most families still lived in fairly traditional structures. The man was the breadwinner, while most women were in less senior roles, frequently consigned to certain professions like teaching and nursing.

Since then the landscape has shifted beyond recognition. That traditional family of mum, dad, and two kids is in the minority. The demand for employment has brought more women into the workplace. Equal pay laws have struck down discrimination, while education is transforming girls’ horizons exponentially.

They can dare to dream. They can do anything, be anyone. We have never had it so good. Or have we?

In reality, the story of women in the workplace is not so euphoric. Pay equality has yet to be achieved. Whole sectors of the workforce remain almost exclusively male. Women make up a fraction of senior management, a handful of boardroom directors.

So what is going on? In this brave new world of telecommuting and work-life balance, surely things have changed just a bit?

When the think tank Demos investigated the change in the labour market over the last decade, they found a steep rise in the numbers of freelances and self employed. In 2011, more than a third of the 1.56m freelancers in the UK were women – 13 per cent of them working mothers.

Balancing act

Record numbers of women might be in work, but most of them are part time. The ONS has already found that four out of five new jobs since 2008 have gone to part time women.

And at the very outset, women appear to struggle with disadvantage still. Half a million young women are categorised as Neets, or not in education or training, many held back by a lack of confidence, or simply because they are trapped caring for others.

It is not as if women are still playing that subservient role. More than 2 million women are now the main breadwinners for their households, thanks to those huge shifts in employment and family structures.

It is not just that university-educated women are achieving higher paid positions. Many men in low paid jobs have seen their wages stagnate – which may account for Scotland’s figures, where women constitute more than a third of breadwinners.

Forget about getting a decent bonus with that high-flying career, though. Male managers will take home an average £140,000 more than women over their workng lifetime – while the remuneration gap grows ever larger, the higher up you go. Last year top male directors took home bonuses which were 76% fatter than womens’.

Four decades since the Equal Pay Act, we still do not have full workplace equality. We cannot wait another 40 years. Adrian Bailey MP

Little wonder, then, that when the Department for Business, Industry and Skills select committee published its report, Women in the Workplace, the committee chair Adrian Bailey MP said: “Four decades since the equal pay act, we still do not have full workplace equality. We cannot wait another 40 years.”

The world of work has changed substantially over the last 40 years, as the ONS figures reveal. It shows a picture of rising employment for women, and falling employment for men.

Juggling work and family continues to be a struggle: and it is still easier for men. Having children is far less likely to affect their employment status than women, despite those advances in childcare and flexible work.

Increasingly, women are becoming their own bosses, setting up businesses, creating new models of management, building their own ladders to success and fulfilment.

Fair pay, more help with childcare costs, protection against discrimination, and a culture that offers the same opportunities regardless of gender, age, and family responsibility. Plenty still left to fight for, then.