BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK
« Previous | Main | Next »

The gender gap

Post categories:

Mark Easton | 08:42 UK time, Thursday, 26 June 2008

When the strike committee from Ford's Dagenham motors was invited round for tea by Barbara Castle, they probably had their first inkling they'd started something. Eight hundred and fifty women sewing machinists making seat covers for Cortinas and Zephyrs walked off the production line exactly 40 years ago this month. They had discovered that, although they did exactly the same job as some men at the factory, they had been designated unskilled B-grade labour and paid 15% less than their male counterparts.

The workers' struggle became an inspiration for millions of women determined to fight discrimination. Indeed it was the spark that led ultimately to the Equal Pay Act in 1970, making it illegal to have separate pay rates for men and women.

Four decades after the Dagenham machinists' industrial action, how do things look? Well, the good news is that in April, the gender pay gap narrowed to its lowest value since records began. The less good news is that using the internationally accepted measure, women's average hourly pay is still 17.2% less than men's. It is a figure that angers trade unionists and women's rights activists. Why, after all this time, should women still be earning less than men? Well, the answer is not necessarily employers secretly paying the blokes more for the same job - although some undoubtedly do.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the explanation is probably down to different work patterns. Female employees tend to have more disrupted career patterns than males: a greater number of different occupations, and their length of service with an employer is likely to be less.

Nevertheless, the government will today announce its determination to close the gap completely. And to help make that happen, any private company looking to win some of the £160bn worth of orders from the public sector will have to be upfront about the pay differential in their firm. If they don't, no contract. If they do, and it's too wide, no contract. The differential is said to be significantly higher in the private sector.

Woman at computerBut it is worth noting just how much things have changed since the Dagenham strike. Back then, the employment rate for working-age men was 92%. And for women, it was just 56%. Today, it is 79% and 70% respectively.

Women now run 700,000 companies in Britain. Women own 48% of the nation's personal wealth - predicted to rise to 60% by 2025.

There are many more young female millionaires in Britain than men - 47,000 aged between 18 and 44 as opposed to just 38,000 men.

Women now sit in the boardrooms of 78 of the FTSE 100 companies - more than ever before. True, there are still many more men and fewer women get to sit in the big chair and control the extendable pointer. But even that seems to be changing as hard-nosed investors recognise that successful companies increasingly are those which are empathetic and consensual rather than aggressively competitive.

Given that women are outstripping men, educationally and financially, it's probable that the real losers from any inequality will ultimately be male.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.