Women 'at the bottom of the heap' in the workplace

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Employers will be asked to review pay and recruitment practices to ensure women are not denied opportunities.

Announcing measures designed to close the pay gap between the sexes, Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary for Trade and Industry, said the Government wanted to prevent women facing a "stark choice" between motherhood and a fulfilling career. Under the reforms, larger companies will have to publish details of how they train and recruit staff, while women will be given rights to check on their employers' equal pay policies.

The Government stopped short of ordering all employers to re-examine their working practices. Instead, it will tell firms it makes business sense for them to look afresh at their treatment of women.

Ms Hewitt said the pay gap had narrowed over the past 30 years, but the average earnings of women were still only 81 per cent of men's.

"Our proposals will help, but what is also needed is a cultural change among employers to properly value women's contribution to business success. An important part of this cultural change comes from providing better information to employees and to shareholders on a company's record on equal pay and employment."

Ms Hewitt said too many women were becoming detached by motherhood from well-paid jobs. "They end up losing out and it is reflected in the continuing pay gap. The Government is determined to ensure that women do not have to face a stark choice between being a mother and being a successful employee."

The Government was responding to a report from Denise Kingsmill, its equal pay adviser, who consulted companies, trade unions, voluntary organisations and public-sector bodies. Ms Kingsmill said women were "clustered at the bottom of the heap" in jobs ranging from nursing to banking. She said: "The overwhelming business case for the effective use of the talents and abilities of women offers the greatest potential for reducing the pay gap."

The Equal Opportunities Commission announced it was setting targets for the number of employers checking their pay systems. Julie Mellor, its chairwoman, said half of big employers should have done a review by the end of 2003.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, welcomed the pay reviews. "If the voluntary approach does not succeed, the Government should make pay reviews a legal requirement."

The Confederation of British Industry said it supported attempts to close the pay gap but added that blaming employers was too easy. "The main causes are the large numbers of women working in low-paid sectors and [the fact] that many women take career breaks or work part-time because of childcare responsibilities," said Susan Anderson, the director of human resources policy.