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Women at work: edging towards equality| Editorial

These are some real reasons to be cheerful. But the glass is still only just half full

There are moments, as Jim Callaghan so famously observed before Labour was evicted from power in 1979, when the times change. In one important way, it is beginning to feel that Britain is at a watershed now. The terms of the debate about the role of women seem to have made a critical shift, so that the question is not so much why, as how to pursue the fight for equality. It is a fight that is a long way from victory, and one that is brutally exposing the significance of class and race as well as gender in perpetuating inequality. But when the Church of England rejects a compromise that would have left women as second class bishops, as Synod did on Wednesday, and a Conservative prime minister talks of quotas for women in boardrooms, as David Cameron did yesterday, then something important is happening to a long-familiar argument; something much more fundamental than trying to appeal to women voters.

Of course, such an epic change does not just happen. It has taken 50 years to get this far, two generations of women prepared to put up with derision and discouragement, and to make the hard compromises with family life to keep the flame alight. Neither Tories nor Lib Dems have taken much part, but, like the repentant sinner, at least they’re here now, and that makes sustainable progress a real likelihood. Curiously, just as the Winter of Discontent allowed the Tories to frame their argument in a way that voters recognised in 1979, so economic crisis and the failure of the old model of corporate behaviour has made space for the argument – advanced in such unexpected quarters as Master of Nothing, written by the Tory backbenchers Matthew Hancock and Nadim Zadhawi last year – that macho behaviour is more cause than cure. If only, as the IMF boss Christine Lagarde observed, it had been Lehmann Sisters, there wouldn’t have been a crisis at all.

In the past year, nearly a third of all board appointees have been women, edging their share of power in FTSE 100 companies up to 13.9%. That may also owe something to the joint determination of the European parliament and the EU’s fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding to impose a 40% minimum of women in the boardroom by 2020. But there are other straws in the wind. For the first time ever the full-time pay gap between men and women has fallen below 10% and, at least at the junior management level, there is pay parity.

These are some real reasons to be cheerful. But the glass is still only just half full. At Davos (fewer than one in five women delegates) Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg challenged women to have the courage to be as ambitious as men, but she did not explain why she is the only woman at the top of an organisation otherwise dominated by white men. Or take pay equality: only another round of figures will show if last year’s parity is a solid gain, or a miserable chimera created by the disappearance of many low-paid women from the job market. Above all, when it comes to workplace equality, motherhood remains the defining barrier: from City high flyer to the school dinner lady, having children knocks a hole in women’s earning capacity that is irrecoverable, as research from the Resolution Foundation published this week confirms, yet again – and of course it is a much bigger a hole for women in the low- to middle-income sector than for higher-income women. And, Mr Cameron might note in the afterglow of his visit to Sweden, international comparisons are revealing. If women in the UK were employed at the rate they are in the Nordic countries, another million would be in work. Why, economic circumstances permitting, aren’t they? Maybe it is because British childcare is the second most expensive in the OECD countries. Meanwhile, nearly half a million equal pay cases remain outstanding: thousands more claims are never pursued, and the introduction of charges will, by design, make going to a tribunal an even bigger hurdle. More women at the top is cause for celebration. But more women off the very bottom would be even better. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds