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UK lags behind dozens of developed countries in WEF gender gap report

The UK ranked only 53rd on economic participation and opportunity, largely because of the gaping divide in unpaid work between the sexes

Josie Cox
Business Editor
Thursday 02 November 2017 01:00 GMT
‘Today’s research provides more evidence that our economy does not see women,’ said Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party
‘Today’s research provides more evidence that our economy does not see women,’ said Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (Getty)

The UK has received a damning bill of health in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest gender gap report, trailing dozens of other countries in areas like primary education, economic participation and healthcare, at a time when the Government is battling a slew of sexual abuse allegations.

Out of the 144 countries examined by the WEF, the UK scraped into 15th spot behind G20 peers France and Germany. It made up five places on 2016, but still performed far more poorly than many developed countries in several categories.

The UK ranked only 53rd on economic participation and opportunity, largely because of the gaping divide in unpaid work between the sexes. The report showed that 57 per cent of all work that UK women do is unpaid, compared to just 32 per cent for men.

It also found that the mean monthly women’s earnings were just 66 per cent of men’s, putting the UK in 95th spot overall for estimated earned income.

“Today’s research … provides more evidence that our economy does not see women,” said Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party.

“We can only change this by challenging the knee-jerk response to so many of these studies: that women should up-skill themselves and join men at the ‘top table’. It’s time to stop blaming the women,” she told The Independent.

On education, the UK ranked 36th, pulled down by coming just 70th when examined for enrolment in primary education. Although children in the UK are legally obliged to attend primary school, the report found that the average rate of male enrolment was marginally higher than the average rate of female enrolment, proving enough to pummel Britain in the global classification.

On health and survival, the UK ranked 100th, though that was a function of women having a healthy life expectancy, defined as years they are expected to live in good health, of 72.5 years, which is over two years more than men.

“The fact that the global gender equality gap is getting wider not narrower should sound alarm bells for all of us,” Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, one of the UK’s largest charities promoting women’s rights, told The Independent.

“The monthly earnings gap in the UK is so wide because our economy is heavily dependent on low paid, part-time work. Jobs which are still dominated by women,” she said.

“We need better quality part-time jobs. All jobs should be flexible by default unless there is a good business reason for them not to be.”

Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of UK charity the Young Women’s Trust, also called for urgent action to tackle inequalities, particularly in the workplace.

She said that there should be more opportunity for flexible working and urged firms to be penalised if they fail to accurately report pay gaps.

“Right from the start of their careers, far too many women in the UK continue to face disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of support in the workplace,” she said.

“We need urgent action to close the inequalities that women still have to endure, including concerted efforts to support more young women into male-dominated sectors which tend to be better paid, have greater availability of flexible working and enforce penalties for firms that fail to report their pay gaps accurately.”

Under legislation introduced in April this year, any UK business with at least 250 employees has 12 months to publish data on the difference between how much they pay men and women at different levels, but critics have condemned the system, saying that the reporting won’t be granular enough to facilitate real change.

Last month Trade Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady said that the UK was still “decades” away from closing the gender pay gap and warned that the Government has a duty to “crank up the pressure on employers”.

The most recent Government data puts the median gender pay gap for full-time work at 9.1 per cent in the UK. That’s the lowest since the Office for National Statistics started recording that figure in 1997, but is down only 0.3 per cent over the last year.

According to the Fawcett Society the pay gap is largely the result of differences in caring responsibilities, women tending to cluster in low-skilled and low-paid work, but also – in some instances – outright discrimination.

Beyond the UK, Thursday’s WEF report indicated a global lack of progress in 2017. It showed that after a decade of slow but steady advancement towards closing the gender gap, momentum stalled in 2017.

Worldwide, the gap deteriorated across all the four of the metrics that the organisation monitors, including educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment. The WEF said that, at the current rate of progress, it will now take 100 years to shut the gender gap, up dramatically from the 83 years estimated just one year ago.

In the workplace alone, the global gender gap won’t be closed for another 217 years, the report predicted.

Commenting on the findings, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, said “we are moving from the era of capitalism into the era of talentism”.

“Competitiveness on a national and on a business level will be decided more than ever before by the innovative capacity of a country or a company,” he added.

“Those will succeed best, who understand to integrate women as an important force into their talent pool.”

A slew of studies have suggested that improving gender parity may result in significant economic outperformance.

In Thursday’s report the WEF said that notable recent estimates suggest that economic gender parity could add an additional $250bn (£188.6bn) to the gross domestic product of the UK, and $1.75 trillion to that of the US.

For a ninth year, Iceland topped the WEF index in 2017 as the world’s most gender-equal country. But both second-placed Norway and third-placed Finland suffered setbacks, meaning that the disparity at the top of the index grew in 2017.

Rwanda and Sweden took fourth and fifth spot respectively, followed by Nicaragua, Slovenia, Ireland, New Zealand and the Philippines, rounding out to the top ten.

Western Europe showed the highest level of gender parity for all categories examined in the report. Out of 20 countries in the region covered by the index, nine have improved their overall score in 2017 while 11 saw their score slip.

The Middle East and North Africa scored poorest. The region’s highest-ranked country was Israel, in 44th spot, followed by Tunisia in 117th and the United Arab Emirates in 120th.

Its scored was particularly dragged down by poor political empowerment, especially in countries including Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and Yemen.

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