Women's work is not only underpaid, but undervalued

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Hard on the heels of a report from an internet bank noting the rise of a supposedly new breed of "triple-C" superwomen - with career, cash and children - comes a more sobering account of British working reality. There may be upwards of 250,000 triple-Cs in Britain, but there are many times more - an estimated 60 per cent of all working women - who are locked into employment sectors where women predominate and pay is low.

Hard on the heels of a report from an internet bank noting the rise of a supposedly new breed of "triple-C" superwomen - with career, cash and children - comes a more sobering account of British working reality. There may be upwards of 250,000 triple-Cs in Britain, but there are many times more - an estimated 60 per cent of all working women - who are locked into employment sectors where women predominate and pay is low.

For all the advances of women in the workplace over the past 30 years, women in full-time employment still earn on average 19 per cent less than men do in full-time employment; part-timers fare still worse, earning 40 per cent less than their male counterparts. Efforts by the Government to narrow that gap have produced disappointing results. The gap between the earnings of women and men has been cut by only a sliver.

Hence, perhaps, the new tack chosen by the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, yesterday, when she called for "career sexism" - the gravitation of women and men towards different sectors of employment - to be eliminated, and criticised the "macho male image" of some industries, such as engineering and construction. As she pointed out at yesterday's gender and work summit in London, much of the discrepancy between male and female pay is accounted for not by direct discrimination - which is illegal - but by the generally lower pay levels in the sectors where most women work and by the failure of all but a few women to reach the highest pay grades elsewhere.

Ms Hewitt is right to subject the employment gap to scrutiny, as well as the pay gap. She is also right when she says that women should be encouraged to enter traditionally male-dominated areas of employment and that all remaining formal and psychological barriers to women taking up such jobs need to be removed.

The fact is, though, that this will be only one route to raising women's pay. The wage gap will not be significantly narrowed, let alone eliminated, until those jobs that are regarded as "women's work" are valued as highly as those done by men - and paid accordingly.

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