Shattering the glass ceiling

Anjli Raval looks at the Government’s drive to tackle continuing female under-representation

Over 100 employers have been included under the new government scheme to improve job opportunities for women. More than 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act came into force, women are still not reaching the top of their profession, despite significant advances made in the workplace.

Companies including Asda, BP, HSBC, IBM, Royal Mail and Goldman Sachs are set to become “exemplar employers”, whereby they will put to the test projects aimed at benefiting women. They will cover a number of areas, from mentoring schemes in order to promote female executives to supporting mothers returning from a career break. These ‘exemplar employers’ include Government departments such as the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, which have committed to reduce the gender pay gap.

Ruth Kelly, Minister for Women, has created a £500,000 fund to aid employers in financing “troubleshooters”to advise on how to create a greater number of part-time jobs for women at senior levels. Kelly believes that just because a woman works fewer hours, this does not mean she should downgrade her status. “The best employers understand the hard-headed business reasons for extending quality, flexible and part-time roles for women,” she said.

Women suffer as a result of a lack of flexbility in top jobs, which is why just over one million women in the UK have become self employed, with an average of about 38% of UK small business stock either owned or co-owned by women. As women work their way up the ladder, the flexibility of work decreases, therefore they are having to ‘trade down’ in order to regain flexibility. Unless women can combine work and caring roles successfully, the likelihood is that they will not reach the top jobs.

Currently, more than 50% of women working part-time are carrying out roles below their skill level and the pay gap still remains at 38%. The country is essentially missing out on a pool of female talent which is inherently a “waste of capital and a loss to the economy” with “progression being painfully slow and at risk of going into reverse”, deems the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in their ‘Sex and Power Index of 2007’. Flexibility should “be the norm and not the exception” and it should be open to both men and women to negotiate with employers.

According to the EOC index, women represent just 10% of directors at the FTSE 100 companies (0.4% from ethnic minorities) and 20% of Members of Parliament (0.3% ethnic minorities). Britain’s Civil Service top managial positions are still significantly male-dominated with just over 26% women.

Under the new exemplar programme, employers will be urging girls in school to consider employment in tiers traditionally dominated by men. Employers in the public sector from next April will be obliged to conduct pay audits to ensure equal treatment for women.

Disappointingly, ministers have declined to impose such regulations on private sector companies, despite pressure from unions and lobby groups. However, 90% of the recommendations have been taken on board by the Government. This includes the launch of a £10m two-year programme looking to assist at least 10,000 women in finding careers in employment sectors where there are skills shortages or under-represention.

EOC statistics have further shown that political parties would be more successful if they could address the “daily private struggle of balancing work and private life” by selecting more women candidates. The Labour Party’s all-women shortlist has enabled greater female representation, but Britain still has a way to go. On the international scale of female representation, Britain has been ranked 59th, compared to Rwanda (1st), Afganistan (27th) and Peru (22nd).

At the current rate it will take 20 years to achieve equality in Civil Service, 40 years to achieve an equal number of senior women in the judiciary and 200 years to achieve equal number of women in Parliament. The ‘glass ceiling’ is even lower for women of ethnic minorities, with just 6% of Pakistani and 9% of Black Caribbean workers ranking as managers or senior officials, compared to 11% of white British women. Until the major organisations can be held up as examples of equal representation, women will continue to be excluded.

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