Women are losing the battle for gender equality in Britain's workplaces after years of progress, a report shows today.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission's annual study, which looks at the number of women given top positions in business, politics and the public sector, found women's representation had fallen in almost half the industries surveyed. It is the biggest backward step for workplace gender equality in the five years the study has been carried out.
Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the commission, said the report exposed the "clear trend" that gender equality in Britain's workplaces across the board had either hit the buffers or was in reverse. She described the findings as a "powerful symptom of a wider failure" to challenge the long-held assumption that child care was a woman's responsibility.
The commission's assessment found that the proportion of women holding key positions in British life had fallen in 12 out of the 25 categories surveyed in 2006. In politics, fewer women now hold positions of power in Parliament, the Cabinet and in the UK's regional assemblies. It would take two centuries, or another 40 elections, for women to reach parity with men on the benches of the House of Commons, the report says.
The number of women MPs – who make up just 19.3 per cent of the Commons – puts Britain in 70th place in the world's equality league, behind such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and China.
Female public sector appointments fell from 35.5 per cent last year to 34.4 per cent. Their representation in the senior ranks of the judiciary and the police also fell, while the proportion of professional bodies led by a woman fell from a third in the last report to a quarter.
Women's representation in a further five categories, including senior armed forces positions and in the media, was unchanged from 2006. Even in areas in which women's representation had increased, the rate of change had slowed. Women were now found to represent 11 per cent of directors of the UK's top 100 companies, up from 10.4 per cent last year. But the slower rate of change means parity with men is now 73 years away, eight more than estimated after the commission's last survey.
Worryingly for a government that has prided itself in its attempts to boost equality in the workplace, experts warned that new provisions for maternity leave could be behind the unexpected backwards step.
Women currently receive maternity pay for nine months and can take maternity leave for up to a year, under rights which came into force in April 2007. Some have raised fears that the leave of absence right, given to women only, has further ingrained the belief that it is women who should stay at home to look after children.
"The low representation of women is down to straight forward discrimination in some cases, but there are some fundamental ways in which our workplace culture still holds women back," said Ms Brewer.
"Workplaces forged in an era of 'stay at home mums' and 'breadwinner dads' are putting too many barriers in the way - resulting in an avoidable loss of talent at the top."
She said a change of language was needed, with the continuing tag of "maternity leave" being dispensed in favour of the more flexible right of "parental leave".
Samantha Mangwana, a solicitor specialising in workplace discrimination cases, said the Government needed to alter maternity and paternity leave rights to tackle the assumption that women should stay at home.
She said parents should be allowed to decide which partner will use the right to a year off work, currently reserved for women.
"A huge amount of flexibility could be injected into the system by allowing men to take up leave currently only open to women," Ms Mangwana said.
Campaigners urged the Government to take notice of the commission's "Sex and Power" survey and address the failure to make inroads into gender inequality.
Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, called for a "firmer approach" from the Government on the issue. "This survey proves that the softly-softly approach towards breaking down the glass ceiling is not working," he said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies