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Mind the gap: Labour’s welcome move to equalise pay between men and women risks coming up against hard economics


If, as the Labour Party says, equal pay for men and women is “unfinished business”, then it is a very old piece of unfinished business indeed. It is more than four decades since the first piece of equal-pay legislation was placed on the statute book, and still the gender gap persists.

Labour’s decision to put a promise to equalise pay between men and women at the centre of its manifesto for the next election is a laudable one. If nothing else, it signals an earnest intent to drive out such inequalities. That, of course, is the easy bit. Turning manifesto pledges and legislation into reality is rather more difficult.

One reason is that the gender gap is a more nuanced affair than many assume. For example, women earn more than men in part-time work. In many well-paid professions, markedly the law, women have made enormous strides in terms of their representation. Women easily outnumber men in qualifying as solicitors, for example; and, initially, they often earn more than their male counterparts as well.

The gender gap appears to widen for women in their late thirties and forties onwards, as does representation of women at the highest levels of the professions and business, especially in the boardroom. Some leave the labour market for good; others return to their old employers but have missed out on promotions their male peers have won; or they return to less well-paid or part-time or casual work.

This suggests that it is women leaving work to start families that is a prime cause of the gender gap, and experience bears this out. To say this is not to assert that there is no male chauvinism any more, or that every female has her potential fully appreciated by every male boss. But it is to put things in the right perspective, and to focus on the practical ways that family lives and careers can be better balanced. It is also worth noting that many fields hitherto thought to be the preserve of women, such as nursing and primary school teaching, are becoming “masculinised” as men start to train and make their way in novel environments.

The Great Recession too has thrown up unexpected side-effects. Many traditional well-paid jobs in sectors dominated by men, such as construction and manufacturing, have disappeared, and men have begun to face the same sort of casualisation in working conditions that women have known for many decades, and seem to have come off even worse. 

On the other hand, there are twice as many women in the public sector as men, so the cuts there have affected women more than men. In essence, then, this is an economic rather than a legal problem.

One obvious measure, already in place in many workplaces, is an automatic process of promotion for women who are absent bringing up children, perhaps for many years. This is probably the single most effective measure that could be taken if Labour’s new goal is to be achieved in the lifetime of most women in the workforce today.

The drawbacks are equally obvious; not every female employee away on family duties would necessarily have won promotion if she  had carried on doing her job. It is obviously unfair to men if an outstanding performance remains unrewarded while a woman who may very well not have achieved that same performance receives an automatic pay rise and takes another step up the corporate ladder. In such circumstances, the Labour Party could find it has a “problem with men” just as the Tories have difficulty attracting female voters now.