Leading article: The stubborn gender pay gap

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The Independent Online

A report by the Women and Work Commission, which was reconstituted to follow up a report it compiled in 2007, has established that the pay gap between men and women not only remains wide, but has actually grown wider: from 21.9 per cent to 22.6 per cent. The difference is especially glaring in the private sector. To say that the findings are a disappointment would be a profound understatement: all the effort that went into the first report, all the recommendations and exhortations – and what is there to show for it two years later, but an exacerbation of the inequality documented then?

On the positive side, the commission notes progress in childcare provision and the right to request flexible working. The difficulty is that these improvements have not narrowed the pay gap. So what will? The central recommendations relate to schools and careers advice: girls are still channelled into traditional women's jobs, the report says, in the retail or caring sectors, where pay has always been low. They should be encouraged to look further afield and work placements should be offered in occupations where women have not been well represented.

Poor careers advice may indeed be an issue, but it is far from being the only one. Aside from asking the Government to consider what could be done to boost wages in the childcare sector, the commission declines to tackle the continuing assumption that "women's" work is still generally less well paid across the board compared with "men's". "Caring" work, in particular, is disgracefully undervalued – which cannot but have a deleterious effect on its quality. The penalty paid by many part-time workers, mostly women, is another obstacle to equal pay.

This recession, in which some companies are offering part-time working, shorter hours or periods of unpaid leave rather than enforced redundancy, could have the unintended effect of narrowing the gender gap. But it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that it is above all attitudes that need to shift. The assumption that a woman's work is somehow worth less than a man's is still prevalent, even if unspoken, and continuing lack of workplace transparency about pay rates only compounds the problem.

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