Bridging the gender gap

I welcome the report released this week by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into sex discrimination in the City, even if its findings are not at all surprising. 

It is no secret that bankers’ bonuses do not reflect a realistic appraisal of their performance, or that the City is hardly the most welcoming place for women to work. However, it is not just the City, or even the private sector, where women earn significantly less than men. Research carried out by the Liberal Democrats recently discovered that the average hourly pay of women working for the Treasury is 26.5% lower than that of male employees. Only 29% of full-time senior civil servants are women, and the weighted median gender pay gap for full-time staff across the civil service is 15.3%.

Whenever the gender pay gap is debated, whether in online forums or the House of Commons, there will always be those who suggest that it does not exist. Critics claim that like is not being compared with like, or that statistics have been cherry-picked to support a readymade agenda. The reputable World Economic Forum has come up with a measure of “wage equality for similar work”, which measures whether people doing similar jobs are receiving a similar salary. Its Global Gender Gap report ranks the UK at number 81 on the league table for equal pay, putting us behind Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Syria and China.

The Liberal Democrats believe in equal pay for equal work. That is why we have been calling, since 2005, for companies to be required to publish data on their pay scales and to conduct regular pay audits. We are also calling for the introduction of a “name blanking” policy for job applications, whereby candidates would apply for jobs using their national insurance number and not their names. This would help to eliminate subconscious discrimination by ensuring that candidates are invited to interview based on their qualifications, and not their gender or ethnicity. Good employers have nothing to fear from these changes.

In our Real Women policy paper, which will be debated at the Lib Dem party conference later this month, we present practical recommendations to make life fairer for women in the workplace.

We recognise that the laws concerning parental leave and flexible working are a double-edged sword for women and men. They are absolutely necessary, but may make some employers reluctant to hire women who they believe may have children in the near future. We don’t think the state should prescribe that it must be women who take the time off. A survey by the EHRC found that more than half of parents say their current division of parental and work responsibilities is decided by necessity rather than choice. Parents should have more choice over how to share their responsibilities, so we are campaigning to replace maternity leave with 19 months’ shared parental leave, allowing fathers to choose to spend more time with their children.

We want to take steps to break down the stigma attached to asking for flexible working by extending that right to everyone. The same EHRC survey revealed that 69% of flexible workers said they spend more time with their family, and 59% believe that it improves the quality of their lives and their children’s. It is not just parents who can benefit – in the Netherlands, the right to ask for flexible working has been extended to all employees, helping to move away from the idea that workers can only be productive when chained to a desk; we believe the UK should follow this example.

Flexibility will not come simply through legislation. What is needed is real change in the UK’s working culture, which will not happen overnight. However, there are real financial benefits to businesses of introducing flexible working, including cutting office costs and reducing absenteeism. BT estimates that its homeworking scheme has increased productivity by 20% in areas where it has been introduced. By making businesses more aware of these benefits, we can begin to make that change.

These are just some of the policies which will be debated at the party conference in Bournemouth. We hope to demonstrate that promoting equality is not about advancing the interests of one group over others, but about making life fairer for everyone.

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