Nearly 30 years after it was made an offence to discriminate against women in the workplace, attitudes in the public and private sectors remain locked in the past, says a report by the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Although the Sex Discrimination Act was intended to create a meritocracy free of gender bias, research shows that most high-ranking jobs in business, the judiciary and the police are filled by men. The EOC report says women's careers are still blighted by a glass ceiling. The overall impression is one of little progress, although the upward progress of women in those sectors increased by 1 per cent in the past year.
The EOC's annual survey, Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? 2005, shows women are still significantly under-represented in positions of influence in British society: they make up an average of 11 per cent of senior positions in business; 15 per cent of top jobs in media and culture professions; and 21 per cent of the highest-ranking posts in the public and voluntary sectors. Out of the 25 European Union states, the UK comes just 14th for its proportion of women representing constituencies in the Westminster parliament.
Despite women making up more than half the population and nearly 50 per cent of the workforce, only 18.1 per cent of MPs are women and 16.6 per cent of women are elected leaders of local councils. Only in the National Assembly for Wales do women make up 50 per cent of the elected representatives.
The EOC report says the failure to recognise female talent adds to the skills crisis and means organisations or companies often fail to recruit the best people for the job. The study says that by drawing decision-makers from a limited section of society, organisations are less likely to take account of everyone's needs when formulating policies and planning services. Earlier research into identifying the main barriers to women progressing in the workplace have blamed the macho culture of high stress levels, little work/life balance in senior positions, prejudice and stereotypes, and fewer training and development opportunities.
Today's report claims little has changed, saying women are often prevented from realising their potential because part-time and flexible working is not available at all levels of the jobs market.
"Many mothers and carers do jobs well below their capabilities because they can't find higher productivity work that they can combine with their family responsibilities," said an EOC spokeswoman. "One of the reasons women choose part-time work when they have a family or care for another person is because full-time work, especially at senior levels, often means very long hours.
"Yet what is really important to an employer or when a person is in a public position is what they bring to an organisation and what they deliver, not how long they work."
The EOC is calling on businesses, politicians and those in senior positions to make flexible working available at every level; to open public appointments to flexible working and end Britain's opt-out from the European working time directive so no one has to work more than an average 48-hour week. An overhaul of family policies is needed, the EOC says, because overwhelming evidence suggests women pay a high penalty for being seen as the main home and child-carer.
About one in five women faced dismissal or financial loss by becoming pregnant and a third of mothers had given up or refused a job because of caring responsibilities.
Jenny Watson, deputy chairwoman of the EOC, said: "Without addressing women's responsibilities at home as well as at work, we'll continue to lose out on women's talent, and ignoring the potential contribution women can make will cost Britain dear in productivity.
"There are plenty of talented women in business, politics and other areas of public life. [They] make up over half the workforce and the proportion is growing, yet our decision-makers remain overwhelmingly male. We cannot assume it's only a matter of time before more women make it to the top."
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