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9 November 2023

Fair Play for Women at Work


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Written by:

Victoria Winckler
Director
The Bevan Foundation

 

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Chwarae Teg, the gender equality charity, is to close. The news, blamed on a perfect storm of financial difficulties, could be seen as just another casualty of a tough economic climate. But it is much more than that.

The closure of Chwarae Teg comes during a period of turbulence in the labour market, when the progress made towards gender equality could so easily go into reverse. It is bad news for women and everyone who wants fairness at work.

Chwarae Teg was established more than thirty years ago, in a very different economic climate. Pre devolution, economic development at that time was led by the Welsh Development Agency (WDA).  It was well known for its glossy, upbeat presentation of Wales’ economic prospects in ads across TV, print and at stations and airports round the world.  Indeed, so successful was its advertising, that potential inward investors were becoming concerned about possible labour shortages! Keen to prove that this was not the case, the WDA commissioned research to show that there was in fact a plentiful supply of female labour.

The research did indeed prove that there were plenty of women looking for work.  But that was not all that the research showed: it also revealed that women typically worked in a narrow range of occupations such as cleaning and caring, rarely made it into higher management, and were on average paid much less than men.  Some of the people involved in the research, including me, were determined that the WDA should not consider the matter closed – and so Chwarae Teg was born with the help of local authorities, the then Equal Opportunities Commission and the WDA itself.

Fast forward to 2023 and a great deal has changed. There are more women in work than ever before, the gender pay gap has narrowed, and the everyday sexual harassment endured by many women for decades is no longer tolerated. Statutory maternity leave is now up to 52 weeks and new fathers are entitled to paternity leave. The right to request flexible working arrangements is now enshrined in law, and things like term-time working, reduced hours and working from home are now commonplace.

Good news though these developments are, they do not mean that there is now gender equality at work. Women continue to be more likely than men to be out of the workforce for key periods in their working lives because of caring responsibilities, missing out on training, promotion and pension contributions. When they do work, on average women earn £1.67 an hour less than men.  And when it comes to maternity, around one in nine mothers report being dismissed, made compulsorily redundant where others in their workplace were not, or being treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. Women continue to be concentrated into stereotypical roles, for example in health and education and, despite some high-profile appointments, remain underrepresented in board rooms and council chambers across Wales.

These inequalities are already evident in the workforce of tomorrow.  While women full-time undergraduates now outnumber men, they are conspicuous by their absence in the STEM subjects on which much of the future depends: for example of students enrolled on full-time undergraduate courses in Wales in engineering and technology, just 17% of students were female in academic year 2020/21. The position is even worse on computing courses, where just 15% of full-time undergraduates were female. The position is reversed in education and medical-related subjects, where 17% and 18% respectively of undergraduates is male.

While Chwarae Teg may have gone, the need to take action on gender inequality and discrimination has not. In the absence of a dedicated voice on inequality at work, l hope that other champions of the cause will step forward.


 



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