Action demanded over gender pay gap

LONDON (Reuters) - Women are still paid almost 23 percent less than men in on average but the economy could benefit by up to 23 billion pounds if that gap were closed, a report showed on Wednesday.

A generic picture of a woman working in an office sitting at her desk typing on a computer September 2, 2005 REUTERS/Catherine Benson

The Women and Work Commission, set up in 2004 to examine the causes of wide gender disparities in pay and opportunities, said that while the pay gap has narrowed in the last 10 years, it has widened again since 2007.

“The gender pay gap stubbornly persists despite monumental changes in women’s position in the workplace with the employment rate for women now almost 70 percent,” the report said.

“Much more should and can be done to unlock women’s talent. If this is done, the economy could benefit by up to 23 billion pounds.”

The commission pointed to a failure of “small scale and sporadic” efforts to break down gender stereotypes in schools and urged the government to focus its efforts there.

“Often without even thinking about it, young girls can choose to role-play at being ‘teachers’ for example, while boys might choose ‘builders,’” it said.

“This segregation is ingrained in our culture and has significant implications for the career choices that young men and women make and, in the long run, their future earnings.”

It also said women often faced penalties because they take time out of the labour market to care for family members or work part-time in a bid to balance work and home responsibilities.

New laws would also be needed “to ensure that a step change actually takes place,” it said.

The commission put the current gender pay gap at 22.6 percent, larger than in 2007 when it said it was 21.9 percent, but smaller than a decade ago when women were paid on average 27.5 percent less than men.

Women who work part-time suffer an even greater inequality, with the pay gap reaching almost 40 percent. The report said this figure was important because women make up more than three-quarters of the part-time workforce.

Baroness Prosser, chair of the commission, criticised the government’s “slow movement” on the issue and urged it to do more.

“We need to see more action being taken to kick-start the slow movement of the gender pay gap, but also to ensure that we do not let the economic downturn reverse the positive progress that has been made,” she said in the report.

Editing by Steve Addison