Last month there was another frisson of activity in the press about young women being obliged to wear high heels at work? I don't wear high heels and consider it to be sexist and ridiculous to expect anyone to function effectively in 5" spikes. I am delighted that the issue is being raised and believe that all women have the right to fair treatment at work.
But I cannot help but wonder why this issue, triggered by a young woman working in the City of London, is so much more newsworthy than a recent report from the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), which shows social mobility remains a dream and it is working class women who continue to be unable even to get one foot, with or without shoe, on the career ladder. The report shows that it is working class women who are likely to earn the least. Perhaps no surprise, but a persistent reality now for generations and one we cannot continue to ignore.
The SMC refer to the "class pay gap" and demonstrate that working class men and women continue to earn less than their professional counterparts but this description overlooks the double whammy of class and gender - the combination of the two personal characteristics most likely to result in, low pay and reduced opportunities. Let's give it a name and make it real - the "class-gender pay gap".
Apprenticeships should be one way of reducing the impact of the "class-gender pay gap" but sadly this seems unlikely to succeed. A piece in the Independent on 21st January argues that the government apprenticeship scheme is biased against young people who need it most and only 10 per cent of apprenticeships are taken up by young people on free school meals. They rightly ask how anyone from a disadvantaged background without family support can be expected to live on £3.40 per hour. Apprentices are not considered to be workers or students, so they are not entitled either to the minimum wage for employees or the loans and other benefits made available to students. Parents too lose child benefits or tax credits as their offspring are not considered to be in education.
Young Women's Trust research shows among young people it is women who are most likely to miss out on the benefits of apprenticeships - being paid 21 per cent less and more than twice as likely to be unable to find work after completing their apprenticeships.
Another compounding factor is educational achievement. We know that working class boys and girls are those least likely to achieve 5 good GCSE's and it is women with no qualifications who, according to the SMC, are 30 per cent more likely to be workless. Being black, from an ethnic minority or being disabled brings even greater chance of limited opportunities.
Given this background how are we going to even begin to persuade young working class women that their brains, talents and skills are more important than their appearance and that their voices have equal importance as those of young professional women? We need to do this, not only because we claim to have a commitment in this country to social mobility but as the economy develops, we need more people with skills in technology, engineering, construction and other related fields. If we don't make every effort to address the exclusion of working class women we will never fill these gaps.