Women are closing the gap on their male peers when it comes to employment levels, according to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics. Over the past 40 years, there has been a rise in the percentage of women in employment and a fall in the corresponding percentage of men.
Figures from April to June 2013 show 67% of women aged 16 to 64 are in work, an increase from 53% in 1971. On the other hand, 76% of men in the same age bracket are in employment this year, compared with 92% in 1971.
The ONS has suggested a number of key factors likely to have impacted on the rate of women in work. The rise of the service sector, now one of the UK’s strongest in terms of growth, and the decline of the manufacturing sector could have had an effect, especially when you see the biggest shift occurred between 1971 and 1991.
But perhaps more effective have been a number of legislations which have helped to even out the playing field, starting with the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Also name checked by the ONS are the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and Employment Protection Act. The latter made it illegal to sack a woman due to pregnancy and introduced statutory maternity provision. These days, it's hard to imagine an equal workplace without those fundamental revisions.
The figures are certainly encouraging, but there are still some areas in which men dominate. According to the report, men are more likely to be employed in higher skilled jobs than women and make up the majority of workers in the top 10% of earners.
The gap between men and women in the top-earning bracket is significantly smaller in the younger age groups. In the 16-24 age bracket, there is a much more even split of 55% of men and 45% of women, earning highly – as the age increases however, the difference becomes more pronounced. In the 35 – 39 age range, men dominate 68% to 32%.
Presumably the answer for the increasing gap has a lot to do with family. While flexibility and increasing paternity provision have made it easier for women to have both a family and a career, many women still struggle to reach the top of their career and have children.
The UK isn’t faring badly against its continental cousins, though. The percentage of women working in senior management roles in Britain is slightly higher than the EU average. Looking at occupations in the highest paid category (that’s managers, directors and senior officials) 35% were women in the UK - edging ahead of the 33% EU average. Steaming ahead of us in the equality stakes though are Latvia (45%), Lithuania (41%) and France (39%).
It would be interesting to see the figures from Scandinavian countries, who pride themselves on a more equal workplace. Counties such as Norway, which has had a quota for female board members since 2004, are often cited as exemplary in the argument that tougher female quotas work in addressing the gender balance.
The report from the ONS provides an insightful picture into women at work – how far we’ve come and what we need to improve on. It would appear that more and more, sisters are doing it for themselves - but we’ve got a long way to go to create an even keel.
But what are the opinions of the women on the ground?
We went straight to the source to find out what women, who started in a range of different decades, think about changes in the workplace and improvements to equality (or lack thereof).
Jessica Rose, founder, London Jewellery School
Rose set up her business in a community hall in South London in 2009 – now it’s Europe’s largest training centre. Last year, she won the under-25s category of the 2012 NatWest Everywoman Awards.
‘After I graduated, I worked part-time for about a year, then started my business when I was 21. There’s still this huge amount of prejudice for women of any age group, and one of the things about running your own business is you’re in charge. Nobody can put the same glass ceilings in the way.
‘I’m 26 and I’m the MD of a sizeable company. Had I gone the traditional route I wouldn’t be as senior by now. I think that’s largely because of being a woman. I think there’s a lot higher chance a man at my age could be in the same position.
‘People think to do well you have to give up some of your femininity, or act like a man. To me that’s got nothing to do with it. Last week I had to fire someone, which is horrible whether you’re a man or a woman. People would say it’s not very ladylike, but if you can deliver results, that’s all that matters. You don’t have to be an iron lady.’
Hannah Matthews, marketing director, Karmarama ad agency
Having completed the Ogilvy graduate training scheme, Matthews joined Karmarama as head of new business, running campaigns for Amnesty, Diageo and Heineken before becoming marketing director for the Karmarama group in 2011.
‘I started working at an agency in 1999 and I didn’t notice a big gender difference, as there were a lot of girls, the same age as me. But the difference has crept in as time has gone by – from middle management up, where do all the women go?
‘It’s shocking that we, especially in our industry, let brain drain happen. We invest so much in training brilliant women, get them as far as middle management and watch them disappear. We just let them move away from the industry and it doesn’t make sense on paper, we should be figuring out how to keep them.
‘I do wonder whether I would be earning more if I were a man. I’m pretty confident and I still feel awkward asking for a pay rise. I have no problem negotiating on behalf of a client or our group, but I feel uncomfortable when it is for me.’
Ruth Waring, managing director, Labyrinth Logistics Consulting
Waring entered the logistics industry straight from university in the late 80s. Now she is on the board of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, and this year won the ‘Industry Champion of the Year’ category of the FTA everywoman in Transport and Logistics Awards.
‘I joined the graduate programme of Exel Logistics – now owned by DHL – there were 90 people, 10 of whom were women. That was considered a lot in 1989.
‘One of my first assignments was the night shift at the Coventry depot. I had a moment of clarity where I realised that if I was going to make it in this industry, I was going to have to pack part of my personality away and be more sensible, be this blander version of me. I started wearing trouser suits instead of skirts, but I thought, "this is the only way I’m going to make it as a transport manager".
‘There were four traffic managers in the depot where I was based, and by sheer coincidence one of them was a young woman. It was fantastic to have someone else. Quite often, though, I was the only woman on site, and I was the most senior person, too. That’s quite strange, especially late at night on an industrial estate.
‘Women coming through now can be more themselves, though. We’ve had so many women coming through, it’s more acceptable, more normal. I think the industry has got used to having us around.’
Jackie Brock-Doyle, chief executive, The Good Relations Group
Jackie kicked-off her communications career in 1984 and having worked on clients such as Visa International, Coca Cola and Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, she was appointed director of communications for the London 2012 Olympic Games. In 2012 she was voted PR week’s ‘PR Professional of the Year.’
‘When I started out as a junior executive in public relations in the mid eighties the whole communication industry was quite male dominated. I was really lucky though, I joined an agency where there were two or three senior females - so I feel I had role models other didn't have at that time. There was one key difference between then and now though, none of the women had children.
‘Having those role models at work was great; they encouraged me to be ballsy when many women didn't feel they could be. The one thing that has changed is that now, women can have children and come back into their careers. I can't think of anyone at that time, clients or colleagues, who had children and came back after.
'Although I don't have children, I realise that women still don't have it all, there are still big decisions to be made about what takes priority but at least there is more of a choice now.'
Jane Asscher, founding partner, communications agency 23red
Asscher started her career in 1985 when she started working for Ogilvy & Mather. In 2000 she helped to set up brand communications agency 23red.
‘When I started working in advertising I was definitely in the minority as a woman – most of the other women joining the agency were doing so as secretaries. It has definitely changed, we’ve just finalised the shortlist for our trainee scheme and six out of eight were women.
‘I vividly remember when I was in my 30s and was being considered for the role of chief executive at my agency, the chairman pulled me aside and said, ‘what you need to do is get your hair and nails done.’ It was a typical attitude in those days (the mid nineties) – the idea that women wouldn’t progress on their merit alone.
‘The other big difference I notice is in flexibility. I remember in the early 90s, when I wanted to take some time off to go to my first child's nativity play my boss was horrified and told me I needed to be at work (which I really didn't). I ended up beating myself up for not going and lying about events in my diary so as not to miss another event. Flexibility is more prevalent now.'