News that the West End musical Made in Dagenham will close in April is disappointing on two fronts. Ignore for a moment what it says about the viability of new theatre productions in the capital, and consider that we will lose a valuable reminder of the fight for workplace gender equality in Britain. And it is a fight for which we need all the help we can get.
On December 16 last year the musical’s star, Gemma Arterton, led a group of Dagenham veterans and other activists on a protest outside the House of Commons to highlight the UK’s continuing gender pay gap. It was well timed.
The UK has traditionally had among the highest rates of employment, including female paid employment, in the European Union. However, the trend in rising women’s economic participation has gone into reverse since the onset of the economic crisis. It is one of the reasons the UK’s position in global gender equality rankings has been slipping in recent years.
Since the World Economic Forum began compiling surveys on the issue in 2006, the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th place in terms of gender equality. Similarly, the UN’s annual human development indices show that Britain is still a very highly developed country overall but has slipped down the league tables for gender equality, to 35th in 2014.
In November last year, a conference held at Kings College London focused on the Working Women’s Charter signed 40 years ago in the wake of the Dagenham strike. Participants noted that although there has been progress in women’s legal position since the 1970s, workplace support for working women remains woefully inadequate and their pay still lags behind that of men. In particular, they highlighted the fact that many women are trapped in low-paid, insecure employment, often on zero-hours contracts or other types of marginal hours.
Official labour market statistics published in November 2014 confirmed this analysis. Overall, the unadjusted gender pay gap (the difference in median hourly pay between men and women) has fallen from 27.5% in 1997 to 19.1% in 2014. But this is still fairly high in comparison with many other European countries.
Higher paid women working full-time have been doing relatively well in the private as well as the public sector. But the pattern of the overall gender pay gap appears to be strongly constrained by the high proportion of women in the UK working on relatively low hours, since part-time work is lower paid. Where they are compared like for like, women are closing the pay gap on men. But women are still not adequately represented in top jobs, and they are disproportionately located in lower paid occupations and jobs. These lower paid jobs have become more common since 2008.
Women’s labour market participation, their pay and conditions are linked to the amount of support they receive for their caring responsibilities: British women on average do about twice as much as childcare as their male partner. Initiatives introduced in 2014 to make parental leave more flexible for both fathers and mothers, and to extend the right to request flexible hours, have been hailed by family campaign groups as a step in the right direction, but the Catch-22 here is that their uptake is likely to be limited by the continuing discrepancy between male and female earnings.
The national charity Working Families, together with other family campaign groups and supported by trade unions and the CBI, has put forward a manifesto for change. Their proposals are based on new rights to flexible working, access to family-friendly rights for workers on precarious contracts, an increase in statutory paternity leave entitlement, extending shared parental leave to all fathers, enabling flexible, part-time take-up, uprating maternity and paternity pay, and a new national strategy on childcare.
The lack of affordable childcare is another factor inhibiting women’s ability to sustain full-time, better-paid employment. The UK compares badly with its European neighbours. Recent reports found that in around one in ten British families, one parent is in effect working for virtually zero pay because childcare costs take such a substantial portion of income. The Working Families charity’s own annual survey of working parents show that childcare availability is a source of concern for many, and shapes individuals' choices about employment, careers and working time.
The obvious question, of course, is whether the 2015 election can see women’s work and care battle its way onto the political agenda. Speaking at a round table on fathers and fatherhood in Oxford last week, David Lammy MP (chair of the parliamentary all-party group on fathers) referred to a “horrible conspiracy” among the main parties to “take Britain back to the 1950s”. At Working Families' national policy conference on Tuesday, representatives of the three main parties argued that the steps taken so far go in the right direction, but they also acknowledged the challenges that still remain to be tackled if workplaces are ever going to take employees' caring needs seriously.
And yet so far, all parties seem reluctant to do more than look at increasing paid childcare hours for three to four year olds. If Liberal Democrat equalities minister Jo Swinson is right, shared parental leave and the right to request will start a process where workplaces will increasingly have to take account of employees' demands. But should the parties not be taking more decisive action now, given the size of the problems they need to tackle?