This April, one hundred years on from some women being granted the vote, companies will publish the first full set of gender pay gap data.
There is no doubt that this data will show that there is pay gap but the gap that we will see splashed across newspapers will be smaller than the reality. This is because only companies with more than 250 employees have to publish the data – while around 60 per cent of the work force is employed by smaller companies.
As well as not including the majority of women workers, the statistics will also exclude the many women who want to work but cannot afford to do so because the low salaries and insecure contracts do not allow them to pay for childcare, housing or travel. If these women were factored in, the gap would undoubtedly increase.
The other enduring reality that will not be immediately apparent in the statistics is the extent to which gender segregation still exists within and across companies. Walk into a bank and there will be women but they will be in HR or customer care. Walk onto a construction site and it is unlikely you will see a woman at all. Engineering is little better, with male apprentices outnumbering women by 25 to one. This matters because female talent is being shut out of so many industries and because “women’s” work continues to be paid significantly less than “men’s” work.
The gender pay gap data will also distort the truth facing young women, that they are the most likely to face discrimination due to the possibility they will have children, or because they already do. Young Women’s Trust research shows that 39 per cent of young mothers have been asked, illegally, about their ability to combine parenting with work. One in seven employers admit they would be reluctant to hire a woman who they thought may go on to have children.
Young Women’s Trust studies have also shown that the single biggest reason for young women not working is having children. But what is much less well known is that nearly 30 per cent of these young women would like to work immediately and 86 per cent are planning to return to work in the future. Despite their good intentions, however, their opportunities are very different. Access to childcare is limited and top-up costs are prohibitive for those on low pay. There is a pay penalty for women who take a break from work to have children and the longer they are out of work the harder it is to return.
There is no doubt that all women face challenges to achieve equality in the workplace but it is the young particularly who face additional challenges. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that it is young mothers who are at most risk of maternity discrimination. Young people under 25 are not entitled even to the living wage but only a lower minimum wage. The TUC found that half of all women and two in three women aged 18-24 experienced sexual harassment at work. Young Women’s Trust found that 27 per cent of mothers under 24 have used a food bank.
The knowledge and anticipation of discrimination is already expressed by school children. 41 per cent of young women aged 13-22, according to research in 2016 by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, think that discrimination will hold them back in their careers. This is ten times the number of boys with a similar belief.
Students have good reason to be so pessimistic and those from minority groups have even more grounds for concern. Young Women’s Trust research showed that 41 per cent of young women from BAME communities had been treated less well than others when working or looking for work because of their ethnicity.
We need to take urgent action, so that young women and girls can hope for a better future.
Identifying a gender pay gap is not enough; organisations that identify gender pay gaps must be required to put in place plans to close them. A fundamental review of how jobs are evaluated and paid is long overdue. 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 will remain undervalued. Unless we take action now, it will continue to be young women, and particularly BAME young women, who lose out the most.