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Ruth Spellman

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The battle for equality is not over yet


Where do you think we are in the battle for equality? Ruth Spellman of the CMI warns it’s not yet over – not by a long chalk.

The recent Queen’s speech included ideas which may see the Equalities bill become law. But Ruth Spellman warns that even if it does, all things will not be equal. Questions will still have to be answered about the equal earning rights of women in smaller organisations. And answers will still be demanded about equality for those women who don’t work in the private sector.

In the current economic climate, could it be that pay freezes are being used as an excuse to delay, or even avoid, tackling an issue first aired more than 30 years ago? In the mid 1970s, when the first Sex Discrimination Act was passed, the move was heralded as a great step forward for UK business. But the reality has been far different. You only have to look at the growing number of tribunal cases to see that pay is still an issue.

Yet, right now evidence from the Chartered Management Institute/CELRE 2009 National Management Salary Survey suggests that employers are holding on to their female staff. The study of 45,809 individuals shows that labour turnover amongst women has dropped to a five year low, with women more likely than men to hold on to their jobs as the recession continues to bite. This is also the first time in over a decade that female labour turnover is lower than that for men.
The findings show that the proportion of women leaving, or changing jobs, currently rests at 4.3% – the lowest since 2005, when just 3.9% moved to a different employer. With male labour turnover currently at 4.8%, the signs are that female employees are in a better position to keep their jobs than males.  
Indications are that this turnaround in fortunes may be due to female executives accepting job transfers, rather than redundancy – something that the HR sector has been stating for a considerable length of time. The other possibility, of course, is that female employees are weathering the recession better than their male counterparts simply because they are more affordable. In an environment where cost cutting is the buzz word on everyone’s lips, the data suggests that employers believe it is convenient to retain those on lower salaries.

Whilst this tactic may appease those people focused entirely on the balance sheet, surely HR has a role to play to highlight the long-term impact. After all, just because women are happy to accept transfers rather than lose their job, it is no excuse to pay them less than the market rate. It is certainly not worth ignoring the fact that, when the economy turns, these same women are likely to move on if they feel they are not being treated equally.
Every time the subject of pay comes up, it is followed by debates over pay rises. At least, on this issue, there is evidence of true gender equality as it is here that male and female employees are both feeling the pinch. The CMI/CELRE Salary Survey shows that 2009 is the first time male and female salary increases have risen at the same rate (4.9%). Good news, yes – but this is only a pyrrhic victory in the search for equality. It seems that employers are using the recession to stabilise pay increases, but with the average female executive still earning £11,206 less than her male counterpart, it is clear that the glass ceiling is still firmly in place.
Does this mean that employers are mistaking equal pay rises for equal pay? And whilst any increase in take home pay will be welcomed in a recession, does it also mean that the pay faces just as much of a glass ceiling as promotion? Surely, whether we live in a recession or boom time, if the focus remains on yearly increases, the arrival of pay parity will never occur.
Ruth Spellman OBE is the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute.

One Response

  1. Women need better negotiation skills

    Ruth is absolutely right to focus on the continuing disparity between pay rates for men and women. I’ve just finished a fascinating book called "Why Women Don’t Ask: The high cost of avoiding negotiation and positive strategies for change" By Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

    It seems women are socialised not to ask, and simply to accept what is offered to them. Indeed, being too assertive is often viewed as a negative quality in a woman. For those who feel they deserve more, I would heartily recommend reading this book.

    Anna Allan



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