Jenny Watson: For too many, children put paid to the veneer of equality

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Today marks thirty years since the Sex Discrimination Act came into force. The Act, which created the Equal Opportunities Commission, outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex, ushering in a degree of "formal" equality. Yet three decades later, women still face a poverty penalty. The pay gap between men and women remains at 17 per cent for full-time workers and more than 38 per cent hour-for-hour for those working part time. The latter has barely changed since 1975.

Not only are women paid less than men, we are also badly under-represented in positions of power. Fewer than one in 10judges and senior police officers are women; fewer than one in five MPs. Yet women now enter many professions in equal or greater numbers to men. But still too few make it to the top.

Many sections of Britain's workforce are dominated by one or other gender (only 2 per cent of childcare workers are male, for instance) and it is ironic that the areas of the economy which suffer most from skills shortages - engineering and nursing, for example - are among the most highly sex-segregated.

Whichever path women choose, too many still enjoy only a thin veneer of equality, which falls apart the minute they have children or start to care for older relatives. Nearly half of all pregnant women are treated unfairly at work, and four out of five part-time workers are in jobs below their potential, partly because of the lack of flexibility in senior roles. Employers suffer from this colossal waste of talent and productivity, while many young women are bitterly disappointed to find that the world they inhabit is not so different from that which their mothers battled to change.

What women now have is the ability to live their lives like men, at precisely the point when men are starting to say that's not what they want any more. Both men and women are now demanding that things should be different, that good quality part-time and flexible work should be more widely available, and that couples should have more choice and flexibility as to who takes time off work to look after the baby.

As this quiet revolution takes place behind front doors up and down the country, it delivers a new alliance between women and men and increases the pace of change. But for possibility to become reality, political support is needed.

Political parties need to create policies which reflect the way men and women want to live today. Pension reform encapsulates the debate: many women live in poverty in retirement because we fail to recognise caring as valuable to society. It is a shameful indicator of our values as a nation.

So no longer are these issues "women's issues". The debate that lies before us pushes us to create space for important family relationships and through this to deliver real equality of opportunity for men and women, both in the workplace and in the home.

The writer is chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission

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