Gender and race inequality remain a double fault in business and politics

Parliamentary Business: 29 per cent of MPs are now women, against one in-five in 2005

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The Independent Online

Professional tennis, at the highest level, is that rare career where the gender pay gap has been abolished. 

Strange, then, that Novak Djokovic wants to reintroduce inequality when he is at the top of a sport unusually modern in attitudes towards pay. 

The idea that the popularity of tennis is due to the Fab Four of Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and – in British hearts at least – Andy Murray is undermined by Serena Williams. 

The American started winning grand slams in the last century, has returned numerous times from injuries to dominate well into her thirties, and is on the verge of equalling Steffi Graf’s open era record of 22 major titles. Once attained, that statistic will confirm what tennis fans already know: Ms Williams is the greatest female tennis player in history.  

The All England Club has paid women and men the same prize money since the 2007 Wimbledon championships Yet, nearly a decade on, the gender pay gap remains acute in broader British society: a report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee points to a 19.2 per cent difference in wages that has barely budged since 2012. 

Maria Miller, the former Conservative minister who chairs the committee, said: “The gender pay gap is holding back women… represents a massive loss to the UK’s economy and we must address it in the face of an ageing workforce, a skills crisis and the need for a more competitive economy.” 

This contradicts a column of mine from 2014, when I wrote that there was “an unstoppable charge towards gender equality in business”. 

That 19p in the £1 difference in pay is unacceptable, but this is a complicated issue. More women work part-time, which is typically paid less per hour than full-time jobs. But, as the report points out, a disproportionate number of women are responsible for childcare, meaning they are unfairly penalised for fostering a better work-life balance. Many women are also trapped in part-time jobs for which they are far too skilled. 

Other measures show more rapid progress. One Office for National Statistics calculation looks at median hourly pay for those working full-time. In April last year this gender gap measure was still disturbingly high at 9.4 per cent and only 0.2 per cent better than in 2014 – but it was the narrowest differential since records began in 1997. 

Lord Davies wants women to comprise one-third of the membership of FTSE 350 company boards by 2020, having exceeded his target of reaching 25 per cent on FTSE 100 boards by last year. When Lord Davies produced his first Government-commissioned Women on Boards report in 2011, only 12.5 per cent of positions were held by females. At the turn of the millennium, 95 per cent of boardroom seats were filled by men. 

In politics, the improvement had been slower, because boardroom turnover is constant and the House of Commons is refreshed only once every five years. 

But 2015 was a breakthrough year:  29 per cent of MPs are now women, against one in-five in 2005. The last big percentage jump occurred in 1997, an artificial inflation caused by Labour’s introduction of all-women shortlists. 

I still believe, then, that the momentum behind equality in work and politics is irreversible. The part-time pay differential must be overcome, but it is the latest front in a war that is being won.  

My point two years ago, however, was both a broader one and a personal one – and it concerned my very clever six-year-old daughter, Sophia, who is mixed-race. A female ministerial aide recently rebuked me for repeating my fear that it is not Sophia’s gender but the caramel colour of her skin that would hurt her career prospects – that her Sierra Leonean heritage would mean my photograph of her standing outside Number 10 is never replaced by one of her living there. 

The statistics are improving yet still startlingly dreadful. In the last parliament, 4.2 per cent of MPs were non-white, against 6 per cent today. That’s just 27 and 41 MPs when there should be 85 to match the national percentage. 

A TUC study recently showed there is a £4.30 – 23 per cent – hourly pay gap between white and black university graduates and a 14 per cent difference between those with comparable A-level qualifications. The Spencer Stuart 2015 UK Board Index found the number of non-white board directors at the biggest listed companies is stuck at the level that women suffered in 1998. 

Serena Williams’ career is instructive. An African-American, she boycotted the prestigious Indian Wells tournament for 14 years because of what she felt was an “undercurrent of racism”. 

But her gender didn’t stop her from pocketing the same money, £1.88m, that Djokovic received when both won Wimbledon last year. 

I’m going to tear out this page and keep it for Sophia to read in 20 years’ time. I hope I’m correct that pay and political opportunity for women is a non-issue by then. 

But I also hope my fears over race remaining a problem are wrong, because all of Britain’s girls and boys deserve a fair crack at earning a good salary and making a political difference. The colour of their skin should not, does not, matter.