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More women at the top – and at the bottom

Female representation in the boardroom has shown a heartening increase; but more and more of their sisters are ending up on the dole queue

It’s great news that a growing number of women are elbowing their way into Britain’s boardrooms. My colleague Tom Bawden’s analysis reveals that up to one in three new appointments have gone to women in the six months since Lord Davies’s report urged all FTSE 100 companies to set themselves targets for improving board diversity.

Yet lower down the food chain, women are not faring so well. Exactly as campaigners such as the Fawcett Society had warned, job losses are falling disproportionately on women as the government’s cuts bite.

Last week’s figures revealed that the number of women out of work is now at 1.05 million, its highest level since 1988. Not surprisingly, as 65% of public-sector workers are women, they have also accounted for the lion’s share of redundancies in recent months.

George Osborne’s much-repeated response has been that growing private-sector employment should help to soak up the workers laid off in the great retreat of the state. That’s no longer true across the workforce as a whole, as last week’s data revealed: unemployment is now rising fast. And for women away from the boardroom, the private-sector jobs that present themselves may be less secure, less flexible, and less well paid than those they have left behind. The gender pay gap in the public sector is 11%; in the private sector it’s still more than 20%.

Fawcett now fears that for the first time in living memory, the pay gap between men and women may actually increase over the next couple of years.

Many of the services that have been hardest hit by the cutbacks, from Sure Start children’s centres to libraries, tend to be used disproportionately by women; and the number claiming unemployment benefit has been boosted by the government’s efforts to coax single mums back into work when their children are seven.

In theory, they are meant to be transferred from long-term benefits such as income support onto jobseeker’s allowance, and given help through the shiny new Work Programme to find their way into a job. But that approach only works if there are jobs for them to go to. Combined with the cuts to the childcare element of the tax credit, the fairer sex could be excused for feeling they’re bearing an unfair share of the burden.

Women at the bottom are going to need all the help they can get from their increasingly powerful sisters at the top. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds