Last Thursday marked International Women’s Day and this year was particularly significant as we are also celebrating the centenary of some women getting the right to vote. We have come a long way in terms of gender equality since then, the Borough of Lewisham being entirely represented by female MP’s demonstrating this. However, despite this and other advances, gender inequality still persists and particularly so in the workplace.
Before being elected to Parliament I worked as an employment rights lawyer. During this period, I encountered countless examples of women being demoted or dismissed after returning from maternity leave, employers placing unnecessary barriers on staff for flexible working and women being paid less than men for doing work of equal value.
These issues are so pervasive in our working environments that I started my own legal business providing affordable legal advice to women facing maternity and sex discrimination at work. I wish that there was no demand for a business such as this, but there was and this is borne out by the statistics.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 women a year are being forced to leave their jobs simply for becoming a mum and that 77% of mothers surveyed said they had a negative or discriminatory experience before, during or after their maternity leave. As it stands today the gender pay gap in this country is 18.4% and at the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to close this gap. This is not acceptable.
To remedy this a cultural shift in the workplace is needed whereby stereotypes regarding women being a burden on business and the assumption that they alone will be responsible for childcare duties are ended. This can in part be achieved through policy such as the introduction of properly paid paternity leave paid at a rate closer to actual earnings and flexible working becoming the norm so that families can better juggle their work-life balances and ensure that having children doesn’t diminish prospects at work.
Additionally, it should be harder for women to be made redundant after their maternity leave. Although women have some protection against redundancy when they are pregnant and whilst on maternity leave, the protected period ends once the mother returns to work. However, it is very often exactly at this point, that women begin to feel pushed out. Therefore, the period of protection against redundancy should be extended to 12 months after a woman returns to work.
I am proud that the Labour Party recently announced its new plan to help tackle the gender pay gap. The policy requires all organisations that employ over 250 staff to audit their gender pay gaps and further prove that they are taking action to close the gap or otherwise face a fine from the Government. I welcome this proposal as if employers risk losing money, they will be more likely to comply with their legal obligations.
We have achieved so much since women first won the right to vote but if we truly want to achieve gender equality at work then we must end the gender pay gap, make flexible working the norm and promote shared caring responsibilities. I raised these points in last week’s Parliamentary debate for International Women’s Day (see video below). However, as the suffragettes said 100 years ago, we need “deeds not words”. Current policies are providing slow, incremental progress at best; we need to implement transformative policy, otherwise true gender equality will be another century away.