Helen Wilkinson: Blair has failed the cause of equal pay for women

Thirty years after the Equal Pay Act, there is still a 17.1 per cent pay gap between men and women


It's not the political obituary he would have hoped for. Dynamic male Prime Minister leads a Government with more women MPs than ever before and commits to feminising politics, but ends it with a controversial history of not always paying his Ministers for Women, presiding over a continued gender pay gap and ducking the challenge of calling employers to account for it.

Harsh assessment maybe, but if the recommendations in today's Women and Work Commission are anything to go by, not harsh enough. Blair has no need to water down the recommendations because the Commission, anticipating his reaction, has neutralised the more radical demands of equality campaigners. No proposals are likely to require legislation. Equality is to be summoned through exhortation, rather than punitive action. It's still business as usual.

Roll on another 30 decades of inequality then.

These are the harsh facts. In 2006, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act - which followed hot on the heels of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act - there is still a 17.1 per cent pay gap between men and women. The private sector is the worst offender. In 2004, the pay gap between the sexes in full-time work was 10.1 per cent in the public sector compared with 23.1 per cent in the private sector. According to the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for greater opportunities for women, it will take more than 80 years to close the full-time pay gap.

Radical action is needed. Yet this is exactly what we are not going to get. The Commission rejects imposing mandatory pay reviews as a way of discovering whether employers wittingly or unwittingly are paying men and women differently for work of equal value. Figures from Equal Opportunities Commission showed just one third of large companies had completed one.

Other countries with a far better record on gender equality have been more radical. In Norway Karita Bekkemellem, the Equality Minister, is threatening to close down companies listed on Norway's Stock Exchange unless 40 per cent of women are recruited to their boards within the next two years. State-owned companies already comply and now have 45 per cent female representation on their boards.

Blair likes to cosy up to business, so he's hardly likely to stomach Board quotas (after all, he didn't like political quotas) even if there is evidence that drastic action is needed. That the Commission won't even recommend mandatory pay reviews means we're not even on the equality starting block.

The Commission also avoids radical recommendations to supporting working parents. Women suffer economically when they become mothers. In 2004, the part-time pay gap - defined as the gap between the hourly pay of men working full-time compared with women working part-time - stood at 40 per cent, a part-time pay gap that will take over 140 years to close at the current rate of change, according to the Fawcett Society. You simply can't talk about delivering equality at work if you don't also look at the "second shift" women do at home.

Here too there are alternatives. Several countries provide paid parental leave, but Norway, mindful of the pay gap between men and women and concerned to tackle the economic and cultural barriers to shared parenthood, established a "Daddy's quota": a period of non-transferable paid parental leave, forfeited if fathers did not take it up. The numbers of men taking leave increased in direct response to this economic incentive (albeit from a low base).

Here in Britain our approach is altogether more immature. Media attention focuses on whether our political leaders take a few days paternity leave, but little energy is spent discussing how the job of parenthood can be more fairly balanced between men and women in the long term, and how work can be made more family friendly. Debates about paid parental leave, a feature of discussions in the early years of Blair's premiership, scarcely register now. Yet a strategy for tackling inequality at work must address inequalities at home.

For these reasons alone, Blair's "landmark" Commission is likely to sink without trace. Despite his personal situation (a wife who earned more than him when he first took up office), his political commitment to gender equality has been lacking. He continues to treat the women's portfolio as work which carries less value than anything else in Government - consistently sending a signal that women's issues are less important than other affairs of state.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Securing gender equality at work is central to economic success and to social cohesion itself. For if we can find a way of enabling individuals to balance work and the rest of their life, we can reverse the declining birth rate and strengthen family life, on which society depends. Policy initiatives like subsidised child care and paid parental leave cannot be sidestepped. Equal pay, economic success and family values go hand in hand.

The Commission's failure to treat them as central and to call employers to account is a lost opportunity and society itself - not just individual women - will pay the price.

Memo to Gordon Brown, Prime Minister-in-waiting: "Urgent action needed: Labour isn't working for women."

The writer is a director of Genderquake: www.genderquake.com


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