According to research published today, female average full-time weekly earnings stood at 74 per cent of men's in 1999, up from 62 per cent 20 years ago. However, a higher proportion of women have jobs at the bottom of the income ladder, and they have therefore benefited the most from moves to tackle low pay.
The report concludes: "Overall, the gender pay gap has not closed more quickly because the growth in earnings of women professionals is offset by the expansion in the number of women in low-paid jobs with slow earnings growth."
The median level of earnings for women working full time is pounds 284 a week, compared with pounds 374 a week for men. But female earnings are skewed towards the lower end and relatively few earn high incomes.
One woman in five earns less than pounds 200 a week, compared with one man in 12. At the top of the earnings distribution, just 12 per cent of females make more than pounds 500 a week compared with 27 per cent of males. And those in high-paid occupations are far less likely than male counterparts to be paid the most. Among top doctors, for instance, 95 per cent of men earn more than pounds 540 a week, a figure reached by only 64 per cent of the women.
The gap does vary by occupation. Women are generally treated more equally in the public sector, where they provide a high proportion of professionals. Female earnings are below two-thirds of male earnings in high-flying professional private-sector jobs such as financial management and jobs on assembly lines.
The report, from the independent pay consultancy Incomes Data Services, says the lowest paid have seen their earnings rise more than the highest paid in the past year. The top one-tenth of full-time employees have had a pay rise of 3.7 per cent on average compared with 4.3 per cent for the bottom tenth.
The introduction of the national minimum wage in April has had a particularly big impact on low-paid women, as 1.3 million of the 1.9 million workers affected are female.
For example, the proportion of female full-time care assistants paid less than pounds 3.60 an hour fell from 22 per cent to 7 per cent in the year to April 1999. In hairdressing, which employs many young women, the proportion earning less than the youth rate of pounds 3 an hour dropped from one in 10 in 1998 to one in 100 in the same period.
IDS Report no 799; details from www.incomesdata.co.uk or telephone 020 7250 3434.