Leading article: The illusion of equality

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The Independent Online

Yet it is all too easy, especially perhaps for metropolitan, middle-class males, to assume that the equal rights revolution has been won. Far from it. While legislation and social attitudes have progressed hand in hand, each prompting the other forwards, economic realities have lagged stubbornly far behind. The evidence assembled by the Prosser Commission on Women and Work, whose report will be published tomorrow, shows how slowly the pay gap between men and women is being closed.

Of course, there will always be a gap in a free-market economy between the average pay of men and women as long as women take career breaks to have children and men do not. But what is striking is that so many women continue to be paid less for doing the same work as men, 31 years after it became unlawful. More obvious, because it is more visible, is the continuing underrepresentation of women at the highest professional levels.

These are, as Baroness Prosser's commission acknowledges, complicated issues. We have moved beyond quick political fixes - although it would do no harm if Tony Blair did fix a broken political symbol in his imminent reshuffle. Meg Munn, the MP for Sheffield Heeley, has been serving - unpaid - as minister for Women for 10 months since the last reshuffle, when the post was forgotten until all the paid jobs had been filled.

The Prosser Commission is likely to be criticised for failing to advocate compulsory equal-pay audits of companies in the private sector. But this might prove too heavily bureaucratic an instrument. The commission was right to focus its attention instead on ways of breaking down the segregation of men and women into different occupations, which has allowed unequal pay to persist in the absence of direct comparison between the sexes.

This requires imaginative thinking about how to shift cultural assumptions about men and women's work which mean that girls are destined for low-paid work from an early age. Inevitably, talk of persuading girls to be plumbers and boys to be nurses prompts the cry of "political correctness" from the forces of reaction. It is the same cry that goes up whenever barriers to equal treatment - on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation or race - are lifted. The Government deserves credit for setting up the inquiry into women's pay - its findings ought to dispel the notion that the battle for equal rights is anywhere near won.