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She’s made 100! Why we still need International Women’s Day

Annie Peate

08 March 2011

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. This year’s theme – the snappily titled Equal Access to Education, Training and Science and Technology: Pathway to decent work for women.

Decent work, in this context, not only means transparent recruitment processes, equal access to opportunities, and greater overall employee flexibility – but fairness in terms of pay. Despite the steady increase in attention this issue has received in recent years, it remains – perplexingly – a relatively slow-burner where actual, implementable strategies are concerned. The historical reluctance of EU member states to address this issue is also well documented. Despite equal pay first appearing on the EU’s agenda in 1957 in the Treaty of Rome, followed by the Equal Pay and Equal Treatment Directives (1975 and 76 respectively), it wasn’t until 2002 with the Treaty of Amsterdam that members became legally obliged to incorporate gender equality into national legislation by 2005.

So what is going wrong?

To correspond with International Women’s Day, The Guardian has produced a guide to accompany the Office of National Statistics annual survey of hours and earnings. The findings make rather grim reading for women. Firstly, as expected, median annual pay for men and women, working full-time last year, is unequal with the former earning approximately £28,091 compared with the latter’s £22,490 –a difference of 19.9%. Broken-down into hourly full-time pay, ONS data shows the difference between men and women’s earnings is 10.2% - in other words, for every £13.01 received by men, only £11.68 is paid to women working the same number of hours.

Last week, I blogged about Lord Davies’ recommendations for increasing female seniority in UK listed companies. This week’s ONS analysis acts as a useful accompaniment because the pay gap is especially wide at the top of the labour market: male directors earn anything up to 21% more than female directors, per annum.

Inequality also permeates the skill formation system. The Con-Lib government has highlighted the importance of STEM (or science, technology, engineering and maths) subject graduates to spur competitiveness and innovation. However, as a report produced by The Work Foundation has shown, the majority of STEM professionals tend to be male. For example, only one in four 25-64 year olds working as a scientist or engineer in the UK is female. As such, a vital part of the government’s strategy must be making STEM subjects more attractive to women. However, with hourly pay differences of around 8% for scientific researchers and 6% engineering professionals, these fields don’t look much more enticing – or indeed fair – than others.

The gender pay gap is decreasing – between 2009 and 2010 the difference in median hourly pay went down by 2%. While acknowledging this achievement, the challenge of International Woman’s Day is to ensure that no society and no government is allowed to settle settles for something short of equality.