Shake up workplace gender roles to advance women

by caroline-gatrell | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 21:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Caroline Gatrell is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University Management School. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

It is around 35 years since equal opportunities legislation came into force in the UK. In theory, this should mean that employed women are treated fairly at work, and paid the same as men in equivalent jobs.

In particular, women should be protected from discrimination on grounds of their potential, or actual motherhood. This story has a ‘glass half full’ side. It is true there are now many more women in business, management, parliament and the professions than in the 1970s.

However, another side of this story shows a ‘glass half empty’. The number of women holding positions of power within UK society remains very limited. It is still, often, men who hold the senior and most highly paid posts.

Things are no better in well paid skills-based occupations such as plumbing and firefighting. In 2006 the Women’s Work Commission showed a high level of occupational segregation, with men in the best paid jobs and women clustered in lower paid roles such as care work.

This discrepancy in earnings seriously affects women’s lives in the long term. We already know that women are disadvantaged in terms of pensions. But there are other, hidden effects of this gender pay gap.

Women are financially disadvantaged in comparison with men if they attend university.  Because they earn less than men, it takes women on average 5 years longer to pay off student loans at present rates – and that is before the new fees regime takes effect. A sobering thought for those of us with daughters.

Why is it that, after so many years of equal opportunities legislation, UK women still lag behind men in terms of pay and seniority? In 2007, the UK Government Report Fairness and Freedom put this down to one thing: motherhood.

It stated ‘there is one factor that above all leads to women’s inequality in the labour market – becoming mothers’ (Equalities Review 2007: 66).

This statement is consistent with my own research over ten years, which shows how employers unfairly associate maternity with lowered workplace performance.

This is most acute when women are pregnant and/or mothering infant children, when their maternity is very visible, especially if they return to work part-time after maternity leave.

Pregnant women and new mothers are often assumed to experience low work orientation and poor health, even if there is no evidence to substantiate such views.

Employers also worry that the demanding bodies of infant children might disrupt workplace routines. Motherhood places women firmly below the glass ceiling and has the effect of literally devaluing the employed female, or ‘maternal’ body.

What might we do about this to ensure a better future for working women? One possibility lies in extending options for men to share responsibility for child care.

If men began to take paternity leave and access flexible working policies, this might shake up out-dated, inaccurate assumptions about women and work. Its time to move on from the 1970s, and open up opportunities for the many talented women in UK society.