Written by Zoe Raven

20th November marked the day which symbolises where women’s average earnings stop for the year, in comparison to men’s average earnings.  2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, but women, on average, only earn 83p to every £1 earned by men, so there is clearly still a long way to go.  The progress to close the gender pay gap is grindingly slow, having reduced by only 2.5% in the last ten years.  This partly reflects structural inequality in many organisations, where less women, proportionately, are in senior positions, and partly the ‘motherhood pay penalty’ – becoming a parent usually has a much bigger impact on the careers of mothers than it does on those of fathers.  Many boards of directors are still overwhelmingly male (and pale), and the problem persists across almost every sector. Women also comprise 70% of low paid workers.  It doesn’t help that some professions are heavily gendered – and, unsurprisingly, the Covid pandemic has made the situation a whole lot worse.

At last week’s stunning (online) Women Leaders Awards in Milton Keynes, Cindy Rose, President of Microsoft Western Europe, and a fabulous role model at the event, expressed her concerns about women’s employment being 1.8 x more vulnerable in the current crisis (according a recent report by McKinsey) and noted that although women represent 39% of global employment, they also suffered 54% of job losses.  During the Covid crisis, 78% of women picked up more childcare responsibilities, and the stress caused by juggling work and childcare, particularly during lockdown, has affected many children as well as their parents.  On World Children’s Day, on the same day as Equal Pay day, it’s worth remembering that access to high quality early years care and education has benefits for the children, not just for working parents.

The early years sector has been undervalued and poorly paid for many years, and it’s not an accident that the workforce is predominantly female. Efforts to improve their salaries and status are hampered by the current underfunding of the sector, particularly when childcare in the UK is  already unaffordable for many families, with many nurseries now struggling to survive.  UK parents already pay the highest childcare costs in the OECD (most of Europe), as a proportion of average wage. Affordable, high quality childcare is almost an impossibility, with the current government funding rates, particularly for parents of the very youngest children.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel.  Glass ceilings are being smashed on both sides of the Atlantic, (go Kamala!) and younger generations of parents are recognising that parenting does not need to be a gendered experience. Fathers are more involved in their children’s care and education than a generation ago, and children are growing up with a more balanced view of occupations – they know that firefighters are not always male, and nurses are not always female (especially if they’ve attended good early years provision!) The pandemic raised the profile of caring professions, and furlough, or working from home, has made many parents reassess their work-life balance.  There is a danger of the pandemic pushing the progress towards gender equality into reverse, but if more flexible working arrangements were implemented for all parents, there is also an opportunity for fathers to take an equal share of parenting responsibilities, and for the ‘motherhood pay penalty’ to be reduced.   

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