Women in Britain hardest hit by pay gap

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THE EARNINGS gap between men and women in major EC countries is at its highest in Britain, according to analysis published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

However, the United Kingdom also has a higher percentage of women working than any European country apart from Denmark, the 1992 edition of Women and Men in Britain reveals.

Female office workers in the British banking and finance sector earned only 53 per cent of the gross monthly earnings of their male colleagues and 61 per cent in the retail and distribution services. Of the nine countries supplying data, the narrowest gap was in Portugal with 77 per cent and 83 per cent respectively.

Non-manual women workers in industry received 55 per cent of the monthly figure paid to men. Only Luxembourg showed a wider gap at 54 per cent. For Portuguese women the difference was again the smallest at 70 per cent.

In general, women in British industry received 69 per cent of gross hourly male earnings, compared with 85 per cent in Denmark, the highest percentage. Only Luxembourg had a wider gap than Britain at 65 per cent. The hourly figures discount to a much greater extent the influence of part-time work.

The commission also found that while the proportion of women representatives in the lower houses of European parliaments averaged 13 per cent, the figure in the House of Commons was only 9 per cent. This was despite a rise in the number of female MPs from 44 to 60 after the election in April.

About 52 per cent of women in the UK are economically active - meaning they are considered to be part of the working population, whether employed or unemployed. That figure puts Britain second only to Denmark with 61 per cent, and well above the European average of 42 per cent.

The UK comes top of the league when it comes to the number of part-timers in the workforce, 86 per cent of whom in Britain are women. In 1990, nearly 15 million women worked part-time in the European Community, 5 million of whom were in Britain.

The tendency for part-time jobs to be lowly paid is an important factor in the significant and alarmingly persistent gap between the earnings of women and men in Britain, the commission says. Other factors include the increasingly fragmented collective bargaining structures in Britain and the lack of a minimum wage which all other EC countries, except Ireland, have in some form.

Joanna Foster, the commission's chair, said the value placed on women's work was central to any commitment to equal opportunities. 'Pay is the core equal opportunities issue. Women in Britain these days do not just work for 'pin money'. What they earn is economically crucial to them and their families' well-being.'

The revelation that Britain was lagging behind EC competitors in the equal pay stakes was further evidence of the need for the Government to give a lead to employers, Ms Foster said. 'A range of statistics on work and family issues reinforces the now familiar story of a nation that pays lip service to family values while coming near the bottom of the EC league for family-friendly policies.'

Women and Men in Britain 1992; Equal Opportunities Commission; HMSO; pounds 10.95.