The case being brought on women’s behalf against Tesco is a timely reminder of the enduring realities facing women in the workplace. On 6th February we celebrated the 100th anniversary of some women gaining the right to vote but young and impoverished women had to wait another 10 years. Nowadays all women have equal voting power but they do not have equal spending power. Cases brought against Birmingham City Council and Asda all indicate that there are large groups of women whose work is valued less because they are doing “women’s work”.
It is undoubtedly true that in that 100 years much has changed for women in the workplace but there is still so much further to go. Young women are pessimistic about the future and sadly have good reason to be. Young Women’s Trust research showed that it is young women who are most likely to be offered a zero yours contract and about 16% have been offered jobs that pay below the minimum wage. Even when they are in permanent work we know that women are, on average, paid less and this explains why there is a gender pay gap of over 9% and which would be considerably higher if part-time work and unemployment were taken into account. The work that women tend to do, retail, caring, administration all pay considerably less than the work men tend to do, such as construction or engineering.
I sincerely hope that, whatever the outcome of the Tesco case, it makes everyone stop and think about how we value work and the historic but now redundant reasons for what women and men are paid. These reasons no longer make sense in the 21st century and we should continue to challenge them. It is not brute force that we need in most industries but effective communication and people skills. Something traditionally associated more with women.
Another argument presented by many for condoning lower pay for the work women are more likely to do, is “it contributes less to the economy”. But this is also empty rhetoric. The Women’s Budget Group, for example, have shown that investing public funds in childcare and elder care services is more effective in reducing public deficits and debt than investing the same in the construction industry and would create more jobs overall.
By the beginning of April all companies will have to publish a calculation which shows the pay gap in their organisation. This is undoubtedly an important step forward but it only affects companies with over 250 employees and carries no consequence for companies, apart perhaps for a momentary glitch to their reputations. There is no obligation to publish an action plan or to set targets for improvements. If employers are genuinely committed to addressing the gender pay gap and the way work is valued then we need a commitment to action. This action could include much greater transparency about pay so that all employees know what they are entitled to and what their colleagues are being paid and positive action to increase the number of women in areas of work where they are under-represented.
Equal pay for work of equal value is of course an issue that affects women of all ages but it is particularly crucial for young women today. We have a perfect storm of exorbitant housing costs, prohibitive child care costs and high transport costs. This explains why, according to Young Women’s Trust research, 27% of mothers under 24 have used a foodbank and why over 30% of young women who are currently not working cannot find a way to afford to be in paid employment, despite their desire to do so.
Arriving at a position where we have equal pay for work of equal value requires a fundamental review of how jobs are evaluated and paid. Until this happens it will continue to be women who usually take time off work when children come along as they will be paid less and so have less to lose. It will continue to be women’s work that pays less because it always has.
I hope that with increasing numbers of people challenging unfair pay levels and legal requirements for data and action plans on pay gaps we have reason to be optimistic that work will become a fairer place for the next generation. Making the workplace fairer will help men and women, men will be more likely to consider working in industries such as caring and retail, women will be able to afford to be in the work place, and childcare will be become a more shared endeavour.