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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Gender on the Agenda - women, skills and work

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meg was invited to contribute to a seminar organised by Niace (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) on women, skills and work. Her contribution is below.   


My thanks to Niace for inviting me to speak today on the progress being made, and challenges ahead, for women and skills in the field of work.


It’s true to say that over the past 40 years, since the Equal Pay Act of 1970, gender skills, pay and opportunity gaps at work have decreased. It’s also true to say that these gaps still exist, haven’t closed nearly fast enough, and more sustained work needs to be done.


Gender-pay gap

The gender pay gap isn’t just bad news for individual women, though of course it is. Feeling undervalued at work affects everyone, not having enough money to do what you would like whilst knowing male colleagues doing similar types of job receive more is bound to make us angry which hardly helps build a supportive and happy working environment.  


But in the bigger picture it means that women’s abilities and skills are not being fully utilised in the economy. This in turn holds back everyone, inventions not unveiled, new processes not appearing, and improvements in ways of working not happening. Whole areas of the economy do not develop as well and as fast as they could.


I thing it’s true to say that the Government have shown a commitment to reducing the gap between men’s and women’s earnings, helping to ensure that women’s talents are properly used and rewarded. Over the last decade we have seen much work to quicken the pace toward gender pay equality.


An early step was the introduction of the National Minimum Wage - which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The minimum wage plays a part in narrowing the gender pay gap, as women are more likely to work in lower paid and often part-time jobs. More women than men benefit from raising the minimum wage with the adult rate rising year on year.


In 2004 the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, established the Women and Work Commission to carry out an independent review examining the causes of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. In February 2006 it published “Shaping a Fairer Future” which set out its findings.


As a result a number of initiatives were put in place.  The ‘Women & Work: Sector Pathways Initiative’ was run by Skills for Justice a Sector Skills Council.  The scheme, funded by Government and employers, aimed to raise recruitment levels in sectors where women are under-represented, increasing their earning potential and helping career progression. There are a range of methods, including a team leading training programme, coaching/mentoring training, executive coaching for senior managers, support for women returners and bursaries to access off the shelf solutions.


The Women and Work Commission has recently come back together to assess the impact of the recommendations adopted by the Government in 2006 as well as the plan for delivery.  The Commission has spent 6 months working with key stakeholders from academia, the private and public sector, trade unions and the voluntary sectors to review progress on the action plan, and their report is due shortly. Its findings will show how well Government has done, what challenges remain, and will help shape equality policies in forthcoming years.


Women’s skills in the workplace

The UK faces a skills shortage in various sectors, such as construction, where women comprise of just 10% of employees. Many women currently work in lower skilled, lower paid jobs, or are out of the labour market altogether. Around half of women in part-time jobs are working below their skill level. Promoting equality of opportunity for all could help reduce this skills shortage.


When companies do try and involve their entire workforce it can have interesting results. Recently a Channel 4 programme showed a successful Sainsbury’s initiative, successful thanks to its women employees. The idea was to encourage store staff, primarily women, to bring ideas for increasing its competitiveness over its rivals. It has revealed some impressive talent amongst its staff. A woman who had only been an employee for a month came up with an idea of having store hosts. This is set to be piloted in over 20 stores across the country.


We know that occupational segregation is one of the main causes of the gender pay gap. It’s surprising that a staggering 350,000 women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology do not work in those professions. These are some of the professions that regularly experience skill shortages. I want to put in a plug for the UK Resource Centre for Women in science, engineering and technology, based at Bradford University they do a terrific job and have an excellent website. They are at the forefront of both encouraging more women into these disciplines and getting qualified women to return to their professions.


One of the reasons for women not pursuing jobs in science, engineering and technology can be constraints over childcare and working around their families needs. Having greater access and rights to flexible working in specialised and higher earning jobs would help more women break into traditional male dominated employment sectors and managerial roles. This has been an important area for Government reforms within the workplace.


In April 2003, the Government introduced the right to request flexible working to parents of children under 6 years, and 18 for children with disabilities. The Government has gone further recently and has extended this to parents of children up to the age of 16 from April this year.


The Work and Families Act 2006, which I was involved in as the Minister for Women, extended the period of payment of Statutory Maternity Pay, Maternity Allowance and Statutory Adoption Pay to a maximum of 52 weeks. As a first step, maternity entitlement was increased from 26 weeks to 39 weeks in 2007. This benefits around 400,000 mothers per year. The Equality Bill has been introduced this year, bringing together 9 pieces of legislation. This should make the law more accessible and easier to understand, so that everyone can be clear on their rights and responsibilities.


Women in the downturn

The Government Equalities Office commissioned MORI to undertake research at the beginning of the year on the differing attitudes between women and men during this downturn in the economy. The research suggests that women are generally more concerned than men about the effects of the downturn on themselves and their families.


They found that 40% of women were worried about their own unemployment or that of members of their family compared to 33% of men. 37% of women were worried about their ability to pay the bills compared to 27% of men.


The Government published in March ‘Real Help for Women’ - a booklet with practical advice and information, including about employment rights, where to go for help if they lose their job, children and skills and training. Child benefit was increased to 20 a week in January instead of April, and increases in child tax credit were brought forward a year to the beginning of April.


Two month ago the Government produce a document called “New Industry, New Jobs” a strategic vision for Britain’s recovery. It recognises that Britain’s economy will look different in coming years. The world economy is set to double in size and it will include new technologies; the imperative to move to a low carbon economy and the spread of international supply chains. The Government cites four priority areas for action: innovation, skills, finance and infrastructure. It is clear that innovative businesses will need educated, entrepreneurial and skilled people.


It follows that Britain’s weaknesses in skills needs to be tackled if the country is to benefit from any upturn in the world economy. The Government has set out a range of steps to do this, including a proper analysis of skills needed now and in the future, creating a new Skills Funding Agency to support development in areas of strategic importance to the economy; ensuring universities have incentives to respond quickly to support areas of potential growth and ensuring that public procurement makes a contribution to raising skills levels.



Interestingly in my own constituency male unemployment is now 10% compared to 3% of women. This is a pattern that is repeated around the country with male unemployment running considerably ahead of female unemployment. The temptation, particularly in financially straightened times, might be to only consider men for skills training. While it is clearly essential to give men who are out of work the opportunity to acquire new skills, this cannot be at the expense of promoting the skills agenda for women.


At a time of economic trouble we should be strongly promoting the skills agenda. Women are a vital part of the work force, representing half the talent available. By investing time, money and energy into enhancing the skills of women we all gain. The economy will recover; we will have a better educated and better skilled workforce able to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. This can only be beneficial to the workplace and for society as a whole.


Associated Photograph :

With Meg are Dr. Cheryl Turner from Niace and Pam Johnson, Head of Learning and Organising Services for Unison.

With Meg are Dr. Cheryl Turner from Niace and Pam Johnson, Head of Learning and Organising Services for Unison.

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