The British fashion industry has long been accused of exploiting women's insecurities to goad them into buying things they neither want nor need. Now it seems that some of the biggest names in fashion have also been ripping off the nation's women behind the scenes. Hundreds of thousands of women working in fashion in the UK are being paid less than their male colleagues, passed over for top jobs and prevented from taking what are considered "male" roles.
A group of the country's biggest fashion companies, including Courtaulds – which owns Gossard and Pretty Polly – and high street brands including Next and Marks & Spencer's Per Una, is working to stamp out this gender-based discrimination, offering extra training to women to help them compete with their male colleagues.
In an industry that prides itself on being forward-looking, some famous fashion companies have pursued outdated practices. For decades, the shoemaker Church & Co, whose classic footwear is favoured by such people as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, has divided the workforce at its Northampton factory into men and women, with women prevented from taking what were thought of as "men's roles", and forced to work at different jobs in a separate part of the building.
Church & Co is now working to correct this as part of the Women & Work initiative launched by Skillfast UK, the council for fashion and textiles, which is providing grants to women in fashion to help them learn new techniques.
Fashion designers and equalities campaigners complain that, while women account for 52 per cent of the workforce in the fashion and textiles sector, they occupy just 37 per cent of the top jobs, and are paid 15 per cent less than their male colleagues.
"Discrimination is everywhere, not just in male-dominated industries," said Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society which campaigns for equality between men and women in the UK in areas such as pay and pensions. "Some employers do it unwittingly, so we are encouraging them to do mandatory pay audits to make sure they are not discriminating."
Although fashion is in the spotlight, some argue that the same obstacles block women's progress in all industries: in particular, that women continue to bear the brunt of childcare. The idea that a high-flying career is incompatible with motherhood is borne out by the statistics, which show that the average hourly wage for female workers prior to having children is 91 per cent of the male average, declining to 67 per cent for working mothers.
British women, on average, are paid 17.1 per cent less than their male colleagues, although this varies significantly from industry to industry. Recent research from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission last month revealed that women working in the financial sector earn, on average, a massive 55 per cent less then their male colleagues.
Many fashion insiders deny there is a problem with inequality; while others reject the idea that women are disadvantaged within their particular company, but confirm that it is a problem within the industry as a whole.
"The fashion industry is one of the largest employers for women, has many strong role models and provides a broad variety of career opportunities," said Caroline Rush, joint chair of the British Fashion Council.
"It is the whole thing of careers and children; they are very hard to juggle," said British designer Katherine Hamnett. "It tends to be gay men who are at the top in design – Yves St Laurent, etc," she added. "That's because they don't usually have any children at all, it is easy for them."