Select committee holds government to account over gender pay gap
Just last week, the Chancellor proudly announced in the Budget that the government was winning on the gender pay gap. He said (pretty much cutting and pasting from previous speeches):
“Inequality is down; and the gender pay gap has never been smaller.”
But today we are told by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, led by the Conservative former Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, that “the Government is complicit in a system that is undermining productivity and perpetuating the gender pay gap”. Miller’s committee goes on to propose a raft of recommendations to tackle the pay gap that go far further than those of us who gave evidence dared to hope for.
As Miller points out, the Chancellor may be right that the gender pay gap is lower than in the past, but he omitted to mention that progress in closing the gap is glacially slow and that at 19.2% for all employees. There has been no progress on closing the gender pay gap in four years and the pay gap for women aged 50-59 stands at an alarming 27%. As my colleague Sally has pointed out before, the government really isn’t in a position to rest on its laurels when it comes to tackling the gender pay gap. All in all, it’s really not something to boast about.
So it’s good to see the Women and Equalities Select Committee come to pretty much the same conclusion. The report, which was released today, is refreshingly bold, admonishing the government for its lack of effective action to date and setting out some pretty radical recommendations.
The key recommendations are:
- Three months of well paid, non-transferable leave for fathers. This is crucial as it recognises that progress on women’s equality in the workplace also depends on men sharing more caring responsibilities at home. The inquiry found that many young fathers want to share parenting equally with their partners but often fall at the first hurdle when they can’t afford to take as much time off as they’d like in the first year of their baby’s life. The report cites the example of Germany where the introduction of well- paid leave reserved for fathers led to an increase from 3% to 30% of fathers taking their entitlement.
- Six weeks’ carers leave (or “adjustment leave”) to allow workers facing a sudden change in circumstances like a dependent becoming disabled as a result of an accident. A lack of leave entitlements can lead carers to drop out of the labour market altogether in a crisis situation and then never return at their previous level of skill or pay.
- Flexible working to be the norm, rather than the exception. The report recommends that “all jobs should be available to work flexibly unless an employer can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so”. This represents an important change in that it shifts the onus onto employers to make the case against flexible working rather than employees having to plead the case for it. It also calls for the existing right to request flexible working to be amended to allow part-time workers to request more hours.
- The committee called for the new gender pay gap reporting regulations to apply to organisations with 150 employees or more and for the scope to be extended to include organisations with more than 50 employees within 2 years of the regulations commencing.
- The inquiry also calls for more schemes to support women returning to the labour market after time out due to caring responsibilities and alludes to the role of apprenticeships in offering women a route back into work. To date, much of the growth in apprenticeships has been amongst the 25+ age group but has been largely due to the withdrawal of Train to Gain funding and employers using apprenticeship funding streams to train existing members of staff, particularly in sectors such as retail. This process, known as “conversion” may serve employers well but it does not provide true retraining opportunities to older women who may wish to change careers. So, more apprenticeship opportunities for women returners would be welcome but they need to genuine opportunities and they can’t be the only opportunities. With an FE sector in tatters after more than five years of swingeing cuts, there are precious few opportunities for women to access training courses once they’re out of the labour market.
While there are recommendations that the TUC and unions made to the inquiry which, disappointingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t make it in, such as scrapping employment tribunal fees which represent a £1,200 barrier to justice for women facing discrimination at work, there is so much to be commended in the report that it would be churlish to dwell on the omissions.