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Heading in the wrong direction on equal pay

It is sometimes suggested by the unwary that decades of feminist campaigning have done their job and now the placards and leaflets can be put away, since women have achieved their goal of equality with men.

It takes only a casual stroll through the statistics, of course, to see that this is fantasy. Though the language of equality may be entrenched and discrimination on the grounds of gender illegal (officially), in key respects, particularly in the way that they are paid for the work they do, huge numbers of women are still valued less than men.

The latest figures on equal pay, released by Scottish Labour, appear to show that, after years of steady progress eroding the gender pay gap, it has begun to widen again since 2010.

The difference overall between male and female earnings in Scotland last year was 17.8 per cent. The reasons are complex. There are still cases coming to light regularly of women and men doing similarly skilled jobs for the same organisation, such as local authorities, but being paid differently.

It has been suggested that, if there were a culture in the UK of speaking openly of one's pay with colleagues, glaring unfairnesses between what men and women are paid would come to light more easily and could then be tackled. Employers, of course, already have that information and the Coalition Government has given employment tribunals the power to order an employer to carry out an equal pay audit where an employer has been found guilty of sex discrimination in relation to pay (it comes into force later this year), though there is a strong argument for making employers much more open about what they pay anyway, especially if the pay gap continues to widen. Employers should not be able to avoid paying their staff fairly simply by hiding behind a veil of secrecy.

Another issue is the preponderance of women in jobs associated with caring, catering and cleaning. There is a deeply embedded culture of valuing such work less than jobs where men predominate, such as construction or transport jobs, or the skilled trades.

Then there is the problem of the ongoing lack of female representation at the top of a whole host of businesses and professions, where decisions are made about pay. The lack of flexible working opportunities also means that many women feel they have no choice after having children but to accept lower-paid part-time work instead of continuing to work full time at a level matching their skills. Part-time jobs are typically lower paid and women make up three-quarters of part-time workers. Across the UK, women account for nearly two-thirds of those earning less than £7 an hour.

Legislation on equal pay is reserved, but there is more that both the Scottish and Westminster Governments can do. They can encourage employers to offer more flexible working options and they can do something about low pay. Labour's plans to incentivise firms to pay a living wage could make some headway in tackling the gender pay gap. It is clear that all parties need to take this issue seriously to avoid a backwards slide towards greater inequality.

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