WHEN Patricia Hewitt demanded an end to "career sexism" last week, after new figures revealed that a shameful pay gap of 19.5% exists between men’s and women’s earnings, I felt my heart sinking.
Not because I’m not right behind Hewitt in her campaign for financial parity between the sexes, but because it strikes me as incredible that 34 years after feminist pressure helped squeeze the Equal Pay Act through Parliament, women’s pay continues to lag behind men’s.
Surely it is time to set up a regulatory body that would dispatch teams of inspectors to companies up and down the land to execute random audits on ledger books.
If a company was found guilty of paying its female staff less than men for the same work, a hefty spot fine could be levied. Oh for my ideal world.
Life isn’t that simple of course, and it’s the complexities of the situation that Hewitt is trying to address. To begin with, the truly deplorable statistics: women in full-time employment (67% of all women) earn 19.5% less than their male counterparts per hour, while women in part-time employment earn, on average, 40% less. At the same time, 60% of all working women are concentrated in the 10 occupations that pay the least.
And while the workforce is 49% female, women make up less than a 10th of employees in male-dominated professions such as engineering. IT is marginally better.
Hewitt, who is both Trade and Industry Secretary and Minister for Women, ought to be ideally placed to remedy these problems. Yet her chief prescription seems oddly off centre. She wants to coax women out of secretarial and administrative work and the caring professions in which they are concentrated, and give them a leg-up in male-dominated fields.
It’s a policy of infiltration. Get the women into those high-status jobs from which tradition, culture, nepotism and prevailing imagery debar them and, bingo, they’ll get paid more.
I happen to feel strongly about this tactic, since I was part of a similar experiment in the late 1970s when, in true feminist spirit, my grammar school decided to join the vanguard of a government-fuelled push to get girls into science.
Being a dutiful pupil, I followed the prescriptions only to embark on a disastrous degree in science. I hadn’t received careers advice so much as a career shove - and for me it happened to be in the wrong direction.
Another, much larger problem with the aim of trying to feminise male-dominated professions is the likelihood that as soon as the gender balance has shifted, the given profession will get devalued. That is exactly what has happened in medicine, according to Dr Carol Black - only the second woman in 500 years to serve as president of the Royal College of Physicians.
Over the past 20 years, women have become well represented among the higher ranks of medicine, as consultants, hospital managers and in the analytical field of medical education. And at university level, female medical students now outnumber males by 61% to 39%. Black, one would have presumed, would be cheering.
But last August she went public with a controversial plea for more men to enter medicine in order to reverse its decline in status. What she didn’t say - but what was clearly implied - was that if her plea was heeded, in the future there would be less room in medicine for women.
What all this has to do with pay is illuminating. In the same years that have seen women enter medicine in large numbers, doctors’ salaries have, in real terms, plummeted in comparison with private-sector pay in other professions.
Female doctors, in other words, may have closed the gender gap, but only by bringing male salaries down to match their own in a profession newly perceived as ‘feminised’.
Getting more women into male-dominated professions is not the answer to the problem of lower pay. The answer is to induce - and if need be force - companies into adopting a policy of complete transparency over pay. Only then will women have direct and open recourse to their employers over unfair disparities in pay. If that brings no joy, they can take their cases to the courts.
If I were on Hewitt’s advisory team, I’d be encouraging her department to address the problematic relationship between our culture’s perception of the working woman and the underlying reality - the gap between these two issues being even larger than the gender gap in pay.
Hot on the heels of revelations about pay disparities came an article hailing the advent of the new triple ‘C’ working woman - a modern marvel who has a career, children and oodles of cash. Citing research by the online bank Egg, it trumpeted the fact that a quarter of a million British women with teenage children earn more than 50,000 a year.
But the article was misleading in a number of ways. First, it neglected to mention how many men fall into the triple ‘C’ category - though I’ll warrant the figure runs into several million. Second, it blithely skipped over the glass ceiling problems encountered by women in high-powered jobs. Percentage-wise, the gender pay gap is even more glaring at the top end of the labour market, where female directors of Forbes-listed companies earned a pittance compared with their male counterparts. Nor are they well represented. Only 9% of executive and non-executive directors of the nation’s top 100 companies are women.
Finally, the article implied that having children does not hinder women’s earning power.
But research has repeatedly shown that taking time out to bring up children will grind any fast-track career to a temporary halt and that women with older children find it difficult to re-enter the workforce at the level they left it.
Even now, most professions cater poorly for the flexible needs of female employees with children.
Of course, it is important for ambitious young women to have high-achieving role models. But it’s no good for society as a whole to have their high-powered image belie the continuing disgrace of female inequality in the workplace.