Policy on women at work `should focus on the pay gap, not numbers'

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The Independent Online
THE MYTH of equal female participation in the workplace is diverting attention from the need to tackle the huge gap between men's and women's incomes, according to new research by a leading think-tank.

Peter Robinson, an economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, says policy makers should not worry about the gender gap in terms of employment rates. "Far more important is the continuing gender pay gap. It is parity in pay, not in employment rates, that should be the focus for policy," he writes.

In any case, contrary to popular myth, women are not poised to make up half the workforce in the UK. The prediction that women will soon account for half the number of people in work is based on the rapid increase in the female participation rate between 1984 and 1990.

But in the six years of economic recovery since 1993, there has been hardly any rise; women made up 44 per cent of the employed workforce in both 1993 and 1999. At the same time, male employment has risen as quickly as female employment during the same period.

Nor are certain groups of men - such as the over-55s and the disabled - worse affected by very low employment rates, as is often assumed, says the report. "It is often assumed that when we talk about the inactive disabled and the over-50s, we are mainly talking about men, especially those displaced from manual work." But in fact the proportion of women not working due to disability is just as high, Mr Robinson says. Their difficulty in finding work is disguised by the fact that many are ineligible to claim benefits.

In addition, lone parents, who also have a low employment rate, are almost all lone mothers. However, it is not clear, Mr Robinson argues, that it would be a good idea to get more of them into work.

"We know that low incomes are very damaging, but in controlling for income it is not clear how far work brings additional benefits, and if so how many hours of work are necessary," he says.

Policies should focus not on getting more lone mothers into jobs, thereby boosting the female employment rate, but rather on increasing their incomes through benefits and on facilitating choice. That, along with narrowing the gender pay gap, is the right focus for policy, says Mr Robinson.