by Ann McKechin
Workplace equality is currently a hot topic among UK and EU legislators. In Europe, Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, recently had plans for a 40% female quota on EU listed company boards quashed. Revised proposals released today look to soften down the original draft legislation. In Westminster, my colleagues and I on the business, innovation and skills select committee are now gathering evidence for a new inquiry: women in the workplace. The results so far have been both illuminating and alarming.
On a positive note, the evidence suggests that one year on from Lord Davies’s report Women on Boards, women at the top of British businesses are finally getting a seat at the table. The number of female board members in FTSE 100 companies has increased from 12% in 2010 to 17.3% in 2012, whilst the number with no women on the board dropped to eleven.
But there is still work to be done. The majority of women being appointed to board level positions at public companies are non-executive directors, who lack the power and influence that executive office brings. Despite the number of FTSE 100 companies with more than one woman on the board increasing to fifty since Lord Davies recommended a voluntary code of conduct for chairmen to follow, there remain fifty companies with only a single female board member. Change is a slow process, however, and the news that the corporate gender balance is gradually tilting towards equality can only be a good thing.
“Breaking the glass ceiling” and progressing to the top of the corporate ladder is far removed from the concerns of the vast majority of working women in the UK. Much of the written evidence submitted to the committee relates to the barriers stopping women across the pay levels returning to work after having children, from lack of flexibility in working hours to childcare costs which rank as the most expensive in the developed world. Gingerbread, a charity championing the rights of single parents, noted in their evidence that too much part-time work is concentrated in low-paid, low-skilled jobs.
Unless we ensure that talented women can work part-time and flexibly in skilled positions, there won’t be nearly enough talented women in the pipeline ready to take on senior management positions in the future. Inequality will be baked-in for another generation.
The committee will also hear evidence into why so few women enter the highly skilled and well-paid industries open to STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) graduates. The figures are shocking. Scotland, for example, boasts 56,000 female STEM graduates of working age, but only 27% use their qualifications to work in STEM occupations, compared with 52% of men. Similar ratios are repeated across the UK. My fellow committee members and I aim to question the true nature of the obstacles preventing women entering the pipeline in science and engineering to rewarding and well-paid jobs.
This recession has claimed many victims. Men and women, young and old, are suffering from job losses, lack of opportunities and falling living standards. But the economic crisis has not been gender-neutral. As the economy has shed jobs over the past four years of crisis and contraction, women face steep challenges in returning to a changed workplace. Whether the government’s myopic embrace of labour market deregulation in the guise of “cutting red tape” will have any effect on growth remains to be seen. What is for certain is that it won’t help working women desperate for a measure of security, sympathy and flexibility from their employer in these tough times. Instead, we should be seriously studying the childcare and labour market policies of our Scandinavian neighbours, where women’s participation in the workforce is the best in the developed world and economies are buoyant.
It’s vital that the women in the workplace inquiry gets to hear the views of ordinary women and their real life experiences of these important issues.
I had the opportunity to discuss the inquiry on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earlier this week, and the response so far has been impressive. The programme hosted a phone-in from listeners with the kind of real life experiences that will give real weight to our recommendations.
One caller told of how bosses advised her that she wasn’t “feminine enough” and that she should stop measuring herself against male colleagues, and should look up to female role models instead. Another complained of the dearth of part-time opportunities for ambitious women transitioning from full-time childcare back into work, leaving research scientists, lawyers and accountants, as she put it, “twiddling their thumbs” at home. One woman recalled her manager inviting her to resign from her senior management position in the engineering industry when it became known that she had recently become engaged. Just the possibility of her having children in the near future signalled the end for her career at the company.
If you have similar experiences of gender inequality and discrimination in work, the committee would like to hear from you. Due to the level of interest in this inquiry, the last date for submission of evidence has been extended to Christmas 2012. Written evidence is welcomed and should be sent to the committee, as an MS Word document, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the inquiry, please visit the business, innovation and skills committee website: http://www.parliament.uk/bis.
Ann McKechin is MP for Glasgow North