MSPs have demanded urgent action to tackle the problems women face in the workplace after a damning report said they are being segregated into low-paid and low-status work.

A hard-hitting report from a Holyrood committee found women are subjected to "occupational segregation", clustered in certain jobs such as caring, cleaning and clerical work.

A glass ceiling still separates women from boardroom jobs, while they also receive unequal pay to men, the Equal Opportunities Committee's inquiry into the unequal participation of women in work found. It has now issued a call for experts to come forward with ways to address these issues and other problems.

The moves have been welcomed by unions and the Federation of Small Businesses, both of which said more needed to be done to create equality in the workplace.

Committee convener Mary Fee, the West of Scotland Labour MSP, said: "We all want equality in the workforce. This committee is looking to identify the steps we need to get there."

She added: "The current economic climate has had a negative impact on a number of areas within our society, including rocketing levels of unemployment, particularly affecting women."

The committee is asking for ideas and potential solutions across a series of specific areas: workplace issues; shift working; the squeeze on part-time working with additional competition from men; requests for flexible working; the impact of public and voluntary sector cuts; and the double disadvantage facing disabled women.

These are areas Holyrood's Equal Opportunities Committee has identified since it launched its inquiry into gender issues in the workplace last February:

l Segregation: The tendency for women to be clustered in areas such as caring, cleaning and clerical work; or part-time, low-status or low-paid work caused by caring responsibilities and underemployment; and whether the glass ceiling is about boardroom appointments or general career progression.

l Childcare: The availability and cost of widely available and flexible childcare; and the need for sufficient capacity in the workplace.

l Female entrepreneurship: Women in business, and how they can get help to start, maintain and grow their own firms.

l Local authorities: Ensuring councils meet their equal-pay obligations.

The committee took extensive evidence, including a session during Trade Union Week last February; led a full Parliament debate in June; attended a Government summit on the issue in September; and analysed the latest Government Budget, scrutinising its gender impact.

The trade union Unison has been in the front line of campaigning for workplace equality, and organiser Dave Watson said: "We welcome this initiative from the Equal Opportunities Committee.

"At a time when the UK Government is seeking to weaken equality measures, it is very welcome that the Scottish Parliament is looking at practical ways to strengthen equality in the workplace.

"Inequality in the workplace has many causes including job segregation, pay, training and access to childcare. The Equal Opportunities Committee is right to recognise that the problem is well understood.

"We now need to move towards action at every level."

Colin Borland, head of external affairs (Scotland) at the Federation of Small Businesses, said it would engage with the call for evidence.

"As the Labour market changes, a lot of these issues are going to be played out and amplified, and they are clearly linked to the issue of underemployment, which could blur many of the distinctions.

"We believe the small business sector is more flexible and family-friendly because where there is an issue, you are having the conversation with the person that matters, not some middle manager.

"Small businesses are also more progressive and switched-on because we are quicker to adapt to the problems facing us now.

"If you have a person who is a real asset to you, you will make more efforts to keep that asset, while a bigger company will often simply look around internally for a replacement"

The STUC is running a Close the Gap campaign and UK equality campaigners the Fawcett Society said last month there was a real danger that progress on tackling unequal pay could stall or even reverse as a result of the recession.

Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, pointed out that women still earn on average 14.9% less than men.

"This meant November 7 marked the symbolic date when women would start working for nothing for the rest of the year, by that measure."

She pointed out that the private sector pay gap between the sexes was more than 20% compared with just over 13% in the public sector, where the austerity drive was now cutting more jobs.

"Far from slowly moving forward, we now face going into reverse," she said, adding: "If Government wants to avoid an unprecedented backwards step on its watch, they must take more action."