WOMEN do not face just one glass ceiling in the workplace: at every level of employment, from the shopfloor to the boardroom, from the low-paid to the highly-paid, there is an invisible barrier preventing them being treated on the same terms as men.
What makes this situation worse is that the economic downturn appears to have strengthened the glass ceiling even more, making it harder for women to break through and achieve equality. As the economy continues to struggle, it is women who are disproportionately the victims.
Today, the Equal Opportunities Committee at Holyrood gives its assessment of this problem in the most stark terms. Women in Scotland, says the committee, are being driven into low-paid and low-status work – cleaning, administrative work and care jobs – and are being hit hardest by rising unemployment. The convener of the committee, the Labour MSP Mary Fee, says her group is now looking to identify the steps needed to address these problems and achieve gender equality at work.
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It will not be easy because, in many ways, society appears to be heading in the wrong direction on equality, in and out of the workplace. The vast majority of those being put out of work, for example, are women, which condemns them to reliance on squeezed welfare. And even if women are in work, it is likely to be in the part-time jobs market, which is facing much more competition from men. The thousands of public sector jobs which are about to be cut are also more likely to be held by women than men. There may not be equality now, but after the worst of the cuts hit, there will be even less of it.
Much of the explanation for this is cultural – more than 35 years after the Sex Discrimination Act, the view that men are the breadwinners, while women earn a second income, still persists even though it is now utterly unrealistic. Society has changed profoundly and women are often the main provider in a household, either because they are a single parent or their partner is unemployed.
The issue of inequality on pay is even clearer. For generations, women doing similar jobs to men have often been paid less and the resistance to change among employers persists. If this is to change longer term, there needs to be more women at the top of business making the decisions on pay and conditions, but here too there is a lack of progress. It may be that only targets for a proportion of women in boardrooms will bring about change.
One other issue which should be at the top of the list of potential solutions for the Equal Opportunities Committee is the lack of affordable childcare, which remains the most significant barrier to women finding well-paid, full-time work. The Government must also acknowledge that their economic policies are hitting women harder than men, and do more to equalise the effects of austerity measures. Until then, our economic problems will continue to hit women hardest and make those persistent glass ceilings harder to smash than they have ever been.