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Fighting for equality 50 years after women's liberation and the Equal Pay Act

Anti-Discrimination Sex Bill Supporters in London, 1973. Image credit: PA

Fighting for equality 50 years after women's liberation and the Equal Pay Act

“There can be no doubt that this afternoon we are witnessing another historic advance in the struggle against discrimination in our society, this time against discrimination on grounds of sex,” Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle told the House of Commons on 9 February 1970.

Castle was introducing the Equal Pay Act legalisation to Westminster for its second reading, a watershed moment in the fight for gender equality in the UK.

“In introducing the bill, I hope that there will be no difference between the two sides of the House about the principle…We intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class.”

Just weeks later, on 28 February 1970, 560 people gathered in Oxford for a conference on women’s liberation.

It was the first national meeting of the women who had been forming the Women’s Liberation Movement around Britain in the previous year. Their demands included equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception, abortion on demand and free 24-hour nurseries.

However, 50 years on, the pay gap between men and women in Scotland is widening and many of those demands are still outstanding.

Last year the gender pay gap for full-time workers in Scotland increased from 5.6 per cent to 7.1 per cent. The UK pay gap also increased from 8.6 per cent to 8.9 per cent.

Female workers in Scotland are concentrated into a small number of jobs and sectors, with women making up 80 per cent of administrative and secretarial roles, more than 90 per cent of childcare and early years educators and 77 per cent of NHS Scotland’s workforce.

Meanwhile, only four per cent of chief executives at Scotland’s top businesses are women, and there are no female FTSE 100 Index chief executives in Scotland, according to Engender’s 'Sex and Power in Scotland 2020' report.

The report found that: “Not enough change is happening, and not quickly enough, to redress the gender imbalance in Scotland’s corridors of power.”

“I am the same age as the Equal Pay Act and we still see a huge wage gap,” Kirstein Rummery, professor of social policy at Stirling University, tells Holyrood.

“But we know it isn’t because men and women are paid differently for doing the same job – although that still happens. It is because there is an ongoing occupational segregation issue. For example, we pay refuse collectors more than we pay nursery workers.

“Do we value our bins more than our kids? No. But society values ‘male’ work like refuse collection more than it does ‘female’ work.”

Roz Foyer, the newly appointed general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) – the first woman to be appointed to the role – tells Holyrood: “At the current rate of progress, we’d be looking at another 60 years until that pay gap closes.

“If we’re looking at what the drivers are, we still have that deep-seated sort of occupational segregation and, unfortunately, the more female-dominated roles tend to be the lower-paid roles.”

Foyer says part of the issue is that with many women working part-time due to caring responsibilities, “quite often employers still have this attitude that senior roles can’t be done on a part-time basis”.

“In this day and age, we should be able to look at job share and think about flexible working and having people used to their full ability, even if it is only in a part-time working role. We still have a long way to go around maternity rights, paternity rights, parental rights and making sure that it’s just as easy for fathers to access leave and to be able to become the main carer as it is for mothers,” she says.

She adds: “All of these things come together to create an environment where it still is harder for women. So it’s no surprise to me that we still have a long way to go in making sure that women are in leadership roles and that we have a resolution to the gender pay gap. We still need to see cultural and societal change is taking place around equality. There’s no one fix for this.”

Half a century on from women’s liberation and the Equal Pay Act, women are still taking to the streets to fight to be paid as equals.

It took 12 years for Glasgow City Council to rectify a pay dispute with thousands of women employed in homecare, schools, nurseries, cleaning and catering services. In October 2018, workers protested on the streets of Glasgow in what was dubbed the “UK’s largest strike over equal pay”. Finally, in early 2019 the council agreed to pay out around 14,000 mainly female workers more than £500m.

And then this year, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

“It’s very interesting how all of this is live with the current COVID situation,” University of Glasgow professor of gender history Alex Shepard tells Holyrood, “the extent to which… domestic labour and so-called home-schooling/remote schooling is falling more to women than to men.

“Men are expecting to carry on with their work at home sort of uninterrupted or unimpeded. And producing meals and the rest of it is falling to women. In the meantime, they’re also trying to pack in or find some time around the edges for work.

“A number of journals have said that submissions from women have fallen dramatically, because women just aren’t getting the time to do the research and do the writing and submit, so the male/female ratio of journal submissions has fallen.

“And I know there are plenty of women who just feel like they’ve got both hands tied behind their backs. That’s very striking.”

Close the Gap and Engender have found the economic wellbeing differences between women and men have deepened because of the pandemic.

“It is likely to have a particularly harsh impact on hospitality, retail, and care sectors that are female dominated and dominated by Black and minority ethnic workers. At the same time, services that enable women, and especially disabled women’s, labour market participation, including nurseries, schools, and social care, will need to operate differently to avoid exacerbating the pandemic,” they say, in a joint report on gender and economic recovery.

Research by the University of Glasgow Centre for Gender History has looked specifically at the impact of COVID-19 on gender roles and found the pandemic “brought to the fore the gendered nature of care relationships”.

“A disproportionate number of these female frontline workers at the lower end of pay scales within the NHS are of a BME (Black and minority ethic) background. The strikingly high numbers of BME NHS staff affected by and dying from coronavirus has acutely exposed these structures of inequality,” the paper said.

“Carers for children, the ill and the elderly are underpaid and widely undervalued. A silver lining amidst the devastation caused by the pandemic might be found in the current re-evaluation of such jobs in public discourse, as many commentators have noted.”

Several inquiries have been announced in recent months to examine the impact of COVID-19 on BME communities, including an expert group of academics and Scottish Government officials.

Holyrood asked Iffat Shahnaz, a consultant who develops diversity and inclusion frameworks across the charity and third sector, about the structural barriers facing BME women. “What aren’t structural barriers?” she says. “A lot of black and minority ethnic background are pigeonholed. For a lot of us, our experiences of working in race, equalities, gender is not seen as valid when going for mainstream jobs.

“There is still invisibility of black/minority ethnic women and issues in third sector leadership,” she says, adding that policies and services are sometimes “designed in a way that excludes”. Shahnaz says there must be more work done to ensure these policies “are inclusive for all service users who need to and want to engage with different types of support and organisations”.

Women over 50 are responsible for 42 per cent of employment growth in the UK over the past ten years, according to Office of Nationals Statics (ONS) data.

There are currently 4.89 million women aged 50 and over who are still working – an increase of 1.3 million or 38 per cent compared with a decade ago. However, the pay gap between women and men aged from 50 to 59 is the highest among all age groups, at 23.7 per cent more than double the pay gap of those aged in their 30s, according to the ONS annual survey of hours and earnings 2019.

Holyrood journalists have spoken to 50 women born 50 years ago, including Shahnaz, Shepard and Rummery, about their reflections on life at 50.

Many of these women painted a picture of a busy life spent juggling work, caring for children, their parents or partners and dealing with grief, divorce or health issues.

Rummery says: “From my research I know that women in this age group are often facing increased pressure in the labour market and are doing a huge amount of unpaid work – childcare and caring for grandparents or parents.

“The lack of high-quality social care support is a huge issue for this group, as services have been cut so much they are really only available for the very frail and vulnerable.

“This is systematic sexism: we expect families to do this work, which effectively means we expect women to, but we don’t pay them adequately or give them enough support.

“Many women in this age group are also paid carers – healthcare, social care, childcare, the very jobs that keep our whole economy and society going – but because women’s work as carers is undervalued they are poorly paid, juggling work and home care commitments and so on.”

Disabled women face “the double barrel of sexism and ableism in the workplace”. “Disabled women are amongst the lowest paid of any group,” Rummery says.

“I have a disability aide in the workplace funded by the Access to Work scheme. When I had to apply to take my aide with me to overseas conferences to help me travel, I had to explain that travel to conferences was a core part of my job as a professor. ‘I never knew disabled women could be professors,’ said the surprised assessor. It’s that kind of attitude that is all-pervasive in society and thus in the workplace.”

On care, Shepard says: “The brunt of unpaid care work falls to women, and I know a lot of women around my age who are just knackered because they’re not having it all; they’re doing it all.”

She says there must be a rethink of “the culture of care”.

“And there just needs proper recognition that care is work and it has to be factored into our assessments of the demands on people. It’s really difficult, hard, poorly remunerated, insecure work. And so there’s a double edge to this because a lot women in their 50s will be relying on exactly that kind of labour as well as doing their own share of unpaid labour.

“There needs to be much greater investment in care provision and recognition that it’s one of the essentials for the economy to work and for people to progress.”

Minister for Older People and Equalities Christina McKelvie tells Holyrood that Scotland must “urgently work towards closing the gender pay gap for good”.

“We know that one of the main drivers of the pay gap is gender stereotyping, which causes many women to end up clustered in lower-paid sectors. That’s why we’re supporting training for early years practitioners and teachers to challenge damaging and outdated attitudes about gender roles.”

On more women working later in life, McKelvie says: “There is still more to be done and to ensure that women are represented and visible throughout all levels of the workplace and at all ages.”


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