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The Women and Work Commission has published a review (pdf) of the Government’s 2006 action plan (pdf) on closing the gender pay gap and improving opportunities for women in the workplace. It notes that the overall gender pay gap (including full and part time work) has increased from 21.9% in 2007 to 22.6% in 2009, although it has decreased overall in the last two years. The full time pay gap stands at 12.8% (12.5% in 2007). The review blames continued barriers to women’s participation in male-dominated occupations for this gap, focusing particularly on the continued stereotyping of gender roles in schools and careers services for young people, as well as addressing the need to improve maternity rights and increase the availability of quality flexible and part-time jobs, especially in the private sector. The review suggests that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men, and increasing women’s participation in the labour market, could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion.

However, as The Fawcett Society points out, the review appears to miss the elephant in the room:

While the report identifies some key issues it fails to address the role of discrimination – the single largest cause of the pay gap. Change will not come until employers are legally bound to prevent pay discrimination occurring in the first place – by conducting regular pay audits that identify and root out discrimination in pay systems.

The focus on gender stereotyping in schools, while important, plays into the hands of the business lobby, who can blame the pay gap on the government rather than taking responsibility for actively discriminating against female employees and candidates, be that through illegally paying them less, choosing to make pregnant women redundant (30,000 pregnant women lose their jobs each year) or, like the delightful Alan Sugar, preferring not to hire women as they may take time out to have children. The CBI have certainly taken the opportunity to do this; their only reaction to the report is to say:

“The WWC’s report and recommendations are welcome. The CBI has been saying for some time that a key reason for women earning less than men are their academic choices and careers advice at school.

“We hope the government takes this report seriously as the choices made in formal education affect an individual’s earning potential throughout their lives. More women should be encouraged to take maths and science subjects, which are very popular with employers.

“It is a tragedy that schoolchildren make choices based on poor advice and the stereotyping of subjects and careers, rather than their individual talent and aptitude.”

Blaming the pay gap within the business world on female candidates not having science and maths qualifications is absurd; these are not prerequisites to most jobs in this sector, and a “girly” languages degree will probably get you a lot further in this globalised market.

The second major problem with the review is the WWC’s acceptance of the fact that male-dominated occupations are paid less:

…simply encouraging women and girls out of them into non-traditional trades won’t address the root cause of pay inequality. Female-dominated occupations (the five ‘Cs’ of caring, cashiering, clerical, cleaning and catering) are paid less precisely because women’s labour is traditionally undervalued. While increasing the availability of flexible and part-time working and tackling gender stereotyping in education are important, addressing the undervaluation of traditional women’s work is key. These occupations are crucial to the economy and should be rewarded accordingly. A solution based on women exiting these jobs is infeasible and fails to take account of findings that lower valuation ‘follows’ women when they move into traditionally male-dominated sectors.

By focusing on the need to ensure that women have the same opportunity to do the better-paid jobs in society, but failing to question why these jobs are better-paid, the report condemns huge numbers of people – mostly women – to continued poverty and/or lack of fair pay for the work they do. Why is there no mention of a living wage? Who does the Commission think is going to fill vacancies in the five Cs once women and girls have moved away from them? And why should boys want to try out jobs and careers traditionally associated with women when they are passively accepted to be of less value?

Finally, the report generally seems to make the assumption that parental rights and flexible working need to be extended to women – which they do – but makes little reference to paternity leave or male access to flexible working.

In short, there’s some helpful suggestions here, but unless businesses are audited and held accountable for pay discrimination, unless “female” work is properly valued and the rights and responsibilities of fathers are also addressed, the gender pay gap is not going to close any time soon.