It is not often that I feel like the last 20 years has been a dream. However, when I read the articles in the press a couple of days ago, I was immediately transported back to 1995/6 and the frantic formulation of my University dissertation.
Having elected to study a relatively odd combination of subjects in 3rd year, my final year dissertation had to merge these subjects into a meaningful study and somehow this ended up honing in upon childcare issues and regional disparities. As a non-parent and not being of extreme feminist values at the time, this was somewhat of a challenge. I discovered that despite the Equal Pay Act being in place for a couple of decades, that there was a significant economic opportunity cost for a woman in having children, even if the actual time spent away from the workplace was not particularly lengthy.
In my rose-tinted spectacled view of the world at this time, I envisaged that subsequent moves to address the inadequate provision of affordable childcare and further equality legislation would reduce this gap significantly. And in some ways it has, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has this week reported that the gap in hourly wages between men and women has fallen from 28% in 1993, to 23% in 2003 to reach 18% this year. So, it would seem that the majority of women are no longer seeing an immediate drop in pay from having a child.
However, the issue is now more complex than this. Beneath the headline figures lies a more challenging and persistent picture of pay disparity due to the lack of promotion opportunities for women with children (particularly under the age of 12) and a real lack of career-enabling part-time professional roles. Although we now have improved access to better childcare options, it remains a high cost and if you have more than one child, it can still make returning to work not financially viable for many women. Furthermore, the policy improvements by various governments to try to equalise responsibilities for childcare between men and women, although well-intended, have not gone far enough and there remains an imbalance in our culture and the application of this in our workplaces, in terms of raising a family.
The UK government has signified that it wants its voice to be heard on this matter. It started with voluntary measures and is now enacting legislation to enforce public and private bodies with 250 or more employees to publicise pay data and look to address any gaps. This is likely to come into force in April 2017 and was detailed in our previous post on gender pay reporting. In addition, all employers may wish to consider the possibility that this could be extended to smaller workplaces in the future and that the threat of equal pay claims is still a live issue for all employers. Thus, the pro-active review of pay structures, the consideration of internal relativities through job evaluation, external market rate comparisons and equal pay audits which look at rates and also additional aspects such as access to promotion and training, are likely to feature as key employer activities for the next few years.
When I was completing my dissertation, I did not expect my findings to still be headline news or to form Ministerial quotes some 20 years later. Although my work continues to gather dust in the University archive, hopefully in a further 20 years, there will be a more positive message to portray and it can be put in the shredder instead!