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In the days when the UK internet site was still raising venture capital, co-founder Martha Lane Fox attracted some unwanted attention. "This old duffer looked at me once during a meeting and asked, 'What happens if you get pregnant?'" she recounts. "I was so shocked that I can't even remember how I replied." The anecdote neatly illustrates the kind of barriers professional women still face in offices and board rooms across the UK.

"I think the climate for women is hideous," says Ms Lane Fox. "In all the meetings I go to, I never meet women. It is so depressing." Research from Cranfield University has found that about 93% of FTSE 100 firms have no women visible at director level. "One theory says that women are having to prove themselves above normal standards set for men," says Cranfield's Dr Val Singh.

Gaping pay gap

Fewer women at senior management levels partly explains why the pay gap in the UK between men and women is about 18%, based on an average hourly wage. Inevitably, women also choose to spend time out of the job market raising families and do not accumulate as much work experience as men. Nevertheless, campaigners, still feel the gap is not closing quickly enough. "We don't want our daughters' generation continuing to debate how we tackle the pay gap," says Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

For part-timers it is even worse. They earn 41% less on an hourly basis than full-timers. By contrast, in the Netherlands, the same pay gap between part-time and full-time is only 7%. "The difference is absolutely staggering," says Ms Mellor. "And this is 30 years after the Equal Pay Act."

Research shows that part of the reason for the pay gap is that work done by women has historically been undervalued. Many professions that attract women are often graded at a lower point in the pay structure than male-dominated occupations, even if there is no real difference in skill levels. "It is a particularly British problem," says Ms Mellor, pointing out that nurses in Australia earn above the national average wage, while British nurses earn less.

In 2000, a group of women speech therapists won an equal pay claim with clinical psychologists and hospital pharmacists, after fighting the case for 13 years.

But one of the biggest obstacles to employing more women in areas where they are not well-represented, such as senior management positions, is a lack of qualified candidates. "Our UK managing director is a woman, but there are not a lot of senior women in the company," says Lastminute's Ms Lane Fox. "The fact is that I don't interview as many women over 35 as I do men." Anne Redston, head of Financial Services Tax at accountants Ernst & Young, is also aware of this problem, but remains optimistic that the balance will shift. "When I started accountancy, it was only the second year that [some accountancy firms] had allowed women to do it. "So it's not that surprising that there are not that many women around today. It's changing, but it will probably take 20 years before women have their fair share."

No 'quick fix'

Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman - both government campaigners for women - have opted for a softly approach, choosing to initiate change through influence. With equal pay, for example, the government wants to encourage - rather than force - companies to ensure their staff are paid equally by carrying out voluntary "pay audits". "There is little that can be done to give you a quick fix," says John Forth, a senior research officer at National Institute of Economic and Social Research. "Legislation for pay audits is not going to get passed very easily, even though that route would provide the most noticeable short-term solution."

One positive development for "career mums" is the ongoing work/life balance debate which has made it more acceptable to work part time and shorter hours. Successful women can also be useful assets for their companies, in terms of publicity. Ms Lane Fox is the first to admit that "being young and blonde" has won her more space on the business pages. But the real test will come as more educated women enter the workforce. Only time will tell whether the weight of new generations and fresh attitudes slowly do away with the old duffers.

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© Teilnehmer des Projektes Allied Schools Graz zuletzt bearbeitet am: 7. Mai 2006