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Nouvelles valeurs dans l’Angleterre d’aujourd’hui

Monica Charlot

The Labour government’s gender agenda and the work of the equal opportunity commission: convergence or divergence?

Irène Hill

Texte intégral

  • 1 Pamphlet Ministers for Women produced by the Women’s Unit, July 1998.
  • 2 The Ministers for Women consisted of Harriet Harman (Secretary of State for Social Security and Mi (...)

1The arrival of Tony Blair at number 10 in 1997 put forward a Government agenda for change. One of the distinguishing characteristics at the time was the Government’s explicit commitment to the European Social Chapter. The role of government was also to improve the situation of women, recognising that although major changes had taken place in Britain over the past few decades, women and men still lived very different lives. The new government machinery for women claimed to “have developed a new infrastructure for delivering for women in government [that would] put women’s interests at the heart of the government, co-ordinating work across departments, adding energy and momentum, and supporting Ministers across Whitehall in their efforts to promote women’s interests”1. At the time, a pamphlet Ministers for Women2 had announced that the Women’s Unit was located in the Department of Social Security. Its role was to develop policy according to the Labour Government’s Gender agenda, to liaise with officials in other departments and to support the government in its contributions to the European Union.

  • 3 consulted on 4/6/2001.
  • 4 Ibid.

2The Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) on the other hand is the expert body on equality between women and men in Great Britain. It was created by Parliament in 1976 with three main tasks, working to end sex discrimination, promoting equal opportunities for men and women and finally reviewing and suggesting improvements to the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act. One thing the EOC does not deal with is discrimination on the basis of race, age and disability. The vision put forward by the Equal Opportunities Commission is “a society and an economy that enables women and men to fulfil their potential and have their contributions to work and home life equally valued and respected, free from assumptions based on their sex. A society that guarantees equality for women and for men”3. Their mission is “to challenge discrimination, champion equality and act as a catalyst for change”4.

3In order to understand the importance of this commitment between women and government and the central role the EOC can play, we shall first examine the State of gender equality in Britain. In a second part, we will examine the priorities and areas for action on the Labour government’s gender agenda as well as the main priorities of the Equal Opportunity Commission. On the basis of these developments, we will determine whether the two are making connections in order to drive forward the women’s agenda.

The state of gender equality in Britain

  • 5 Janet Rubin Lecture, Oxford Brookes University, 2 July 1998.
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Ibid.

4Despite the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, inequalities have persisted. According to the Equal Opportunity Commission, sex discrimination is all too alive in Britain. For example, in 1997, the EOC dealt with 8,000 individual complaints, 75% of them were from women.5 Some of which were built into organisations or businesses, others occurred on an individual basis. When the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts were introduced in 1975, sex discrimination was easy to target. Some occupations were considered “for men only”. Married women could not get certain kinds of finance and credit. Schools encouraged boys and girls to do different subjects. Women had fewer career choices, fewer chances for advancement and in general fewer opportunities. Today, such discriminatory behaviour is no longer acceptable and a majority of people, including women themselves, reject unlawful kinds of behaviour and practices. Even if laws have been passed, they are not always clear and sometimes even stand in the way of equality. Access to justice is not yet available for all. Highly complex legal arguments have been raging over the past ten years to establish the right to have the claims heard on their merits.6 Based on more than twenty year case law, the EOC has concentrated on a radical restructuring of the current sex discrimination laws and the mechanisms that enforce them. The European Union Social Chapter has been signed and the new government is committed to putting Equal Opportunities at the forefront of its legislative agenda. The Equal Opportunity Commission works closely with the Government to ensure actions on all major policy developments: the national minimum wage, pensions review, child care, fairness at work and excellence in schools. Finally, in the opinion of the EOC, genuine sex equality is a basic right. If that right is to be observed and protected, it must be built into all legislation, all government and business policies, into all of our dealings with each other.7 By working towards eliminating unlawful sex discrimination, by promoting equal opportunities between women and men, and by reviewing the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act, the EOC is working for change – changes in attitudes, changes in the law and changes in practices. There are currently 29.9 million women in the UK compared with 28.9 million men. 11.4 million women are in employment (44% of all people in employment). Married women in work made up 12% of the workforce in 1951, by 1997/8 they made up 29%. It is clear that the proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing and the trend is likely to continue. Women will account for 0.9 million of the projected total rise of 1.3 million in the labour force by 2006. Women are expected to make up 45% of the labour force in 2006. Women are staying or returning to work thanks to family-friendly employment practices. A limited number of employers (around 2%) operate nurseries. Playschemes in school holidays are also sometimes offered in larger organisations. However, in the UK, parents face the highest childcare costs in Europe. At least 93% of the cost of childcare in the UK is met by parents, costing around £ 2.6 billion a year. Affordability remains a key factor for a family. The table below shows that typical costs of childcare are high. Childcare for a pre-school age child and one at school cost around £6,000 a year.

TABLE 1: Cost of childcare in the United Kingdom

Type of childcare

Weekly cost to parent per child

Childminder for pre-school child

£50 - £120 per F/T place

Private nursery

£70 - £180


£80 - £ 260

Out of school club

£15 - £30

After school childminder

£25 - £50

Holiday playscheme

£50 - £80

Source. Women – facts and figures pamphlet, 1998.

5Availability of childcare is also limited. Out of school childcare currently provides only enough places for 2 in 100 children. Despite the introduction of pre-school vouchers, full-time care is not covered and is in any case only offered front the age of four. Thus although the number of women in the workforce is growing, there is still only limited support given to mothers.

Part-time work

6The Labour Party made a clear manifesta commitment that they would sign the Social Chapter and the Blair government did so in October 1997. The Amsterdam Agreement symbolised the United Kingdom’s return to mainstream European Social Policy. By signing the Social Chapter, the United Kingdom became committed to the Part-Time Work Directive as well as to the Parental Leave Directive.

  • 8 Parliamentary question on employers employing part-time employees by Mr Rooney to the President of (...)

7A meeting of the Social Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 7 April 1998 extended the Part-Time Work Directive to the United Kingdom. This Directive was to be implemented within 2 years. Part-timers gained statutory entitlements to paid holidays and were now given full access to occupational pension schemes. In addition, benefits available to full-time workers were also made available to part-time workers. These include opportunities for training and promotion. In order to understand the importance of this Directive for the UK, one has to evaluate “the number and percentage of employers employing part-time workers, broken down by size of firm; and what are the number and percentage of firms in which (a) at least 25% and (b) at least 50% of the workforce is part-time”8. Despite the fact that this type of information is not part of the standard set of figures that the office for National Statistics (ONS) generates for business surveys, the Director of the ONS provided the following tables for Great Britain (excluding enterprises classified in Agriculture).

TABLE 2: Entreprises with at least one part-time employée job by size of enterprise

Number of employées in enterprises

Number of enterprises enterprises (000)

% of ail UK enterprises

Less than 5












40 +






  • 9 Hansard, Commons, 5.5.98, c 265.

Source: Annual Employment survey, 1996, ONS.9

8According to table 2, over one million enterprises which represents 59% of all UK enterprises, have at least one part-time employée. In fact, the larger the company in size (40+employees), the higher the percentage of part-time employees rising to 88%.

TABLE 3: Part-time employee jobs as a proportion of all jobs

Proportion of all jobs that are part-time

Number of enterprises (000)

% of enterprises

At least 25 per cent



At least 50 per cent



  • 10 Ibid.

Source: Annual Employment survey, 1996, ONS.10

9Table 3 on the other hand gives the percentage of companies with high levels of part-time workers: in 48% of enterprises at least a quarter of all jobs are part-time; over 38% of enterprises have at least half their workforce working part-time. At this stage, it is also important to note that over 80% of those who stand to benefit will be women.

10The labour government also introduced a series of new family friendly measures. A white paper “Fairness at work” was implemented by December 1999. These measures include the implementation of the European Parental Directive, the introduction of time off for urgent family reasons and some improvement of the maternity leave provisions. The parental leave provision gives a right to 3 months leave for both men and women following the birth or adoption of a child. Protection is also given against dismissal for exercising this right. However as with all EU directives, the different Member States are given the opportunity of adapting their national laws to the European legislative framework whilst taking their historical and cultural traditions into account. These newly implemented policies were aimed at securing greater involvement of women in the labour market but unlike the Scandinavian countries or even Italy do not try to encourage men to take more responsibility for care.

11In addition, there is no requirement in the Directive for the leave to be paid and so employers in the United Kingdom were not obliged to introduce paid parental leave.

Unequal pay

12There is extensive literature on women in the labour market, with much of the research showing evidence of continued gender inequality. Unequal pay is a major source of gender inequality and on average women’s pay is only 80% of men’s. The different work patterns between men and women along with the method of pay determination combine to discriminate against the female employee. The economic imbalance affects choices about combining children and home life with a career and will also affect women’s income after retirement. After initial research, it was surprising to discover that 30 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act (1970) in the UK, pay disparity was still very much an issue for many female workers. So what are the causes of this Pay Gap?

13Over the last three decades, much research has been carried out on gender pay gap with wage differentials and wage policy being the major topics for labour economists. Gender as an important part of the debate on wage inequality was introduced later. There is also a tendency in current studies to explain the pay differences by focusing on the System of wage determination and job grading.

14Several issues have been identihed as causes of the pay disparity, all highly relevant to the case of the United Kingdom, in particular occupational segregation and women’s concentration in low paid industries. Here, however, the following four areas are considered as the main contributory factors to pay inequality between men and women: pay determination, under valuation of women’s jobs, legislation and different work-patterns.

  • 11 See J. Rubery, The Economics of Equal Value, Manchester, Equal Opportunity Commission, 1992, 120 p

15Much recent research has highlighted the role of national systems of pay determination and collective regulation, in explaining the differences in the level of gender pay inequality.11 The gap has not closed sufficiently as employers have often implemented decentralised, entreprise level bargaining. This tends not to allow for an egalitarian wage structure and thus accounts to a great extent for the gender gap. It is often too difficult to monitor pay equality effectively within the workplace, as the information is rarely made transparent. Staff are often advised not to discuss their pay package among themselves. Furthermore, decentralised pay Systems exclude national or industry level minimum wage policies.

16The under valuation of women’s jobs is not just an issue within certain sectors, but in society as a whole. The payment received reflects the person’s position within an organisation and their value to it. Many women find themselves not being taken seriously as managers or directors, if they are mothers, being only seen as “interested” in their families. In fact, many women are not only being paid less than their male counterparts, but in addition the jobs carried out by men have a higher status. Often men and women are effectively carrying out the same jobs but with different titles, level of seniority and pay. In addition, the down side for women combining work and family life is that despite some employers having family friendly policies including career breaks and parental leave which are available to both men and women, far fewer men take the same risks with their careers. For many women interrupted careers result in a late start up the career ladder, which affects their salary. The long hours considered normal also make it difficult to combine work and parenthood. Often women found that the best way to reach a balance was by working part-time. The end result being that women have often tended to be on lower grades if they have taken time out or gone part-time to look after their children.

17The legislation governing equal pay is as follows: Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome, Directive 75/117 and the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The Equal Pay Act 1970, was amended in January 1984 to allow claims for pay equality between women and men based on the principle “equal work for equal value”. However as the Directive did not set down any standard method of implementation it has been a slow process. Not only is the legislation complex, costly and time consuming to understand but it also has limitations, as it only covers men and women employed by the same employer. It also relies on a method of measuring the relative value of jobs. In 1996, the European Union introduced a code of practice on the implementation of “equal pay for work of equal value”. This encourages employers to carry out a study of their pay structures, identify areas of potential sex discrimination and take follow up action. In other words, the legislation is failing women and change depends on the decisiveness of employers. It is therefore not surprising that pay disparity has still not been achieved some 16 years after the amendment of the Act.

18The Equal Opportunities Commission undertook major work in order to readress the question of the imbalance of pay between men and momen. Equal Pay is a priority issue and the Commission launched its Code of Practice on Equal Pay in 1997, believing that employers have a central role to play. It provided employers with support and the means to introduce an equal pay policy and a method of reviewing pay Systems. Having these measures in place makes good business sense and sends out positive messages to the work force. The Code of Practice includes recommended good practice derived from decisions of the UK Courts and the European Court of Justice, and best practice known to the EOC. Employer and Trade Union Congress (TUC) affiliated unions have unanimously endorsed the EOC code of practice. Furthermore, in order to narrow the gender gap the EOC uses its law enforcement powers to support individuals with equal pay cases and to recommend amendments to the law. The EOC launched a major campaign on Equal Pay in October 1999. Its aims were to:

  • narrow the pay gap by engaging leaders in finding solutions to unequal pay
  • persuade employers to examine their pay Systems for gender bias
  • raise awareness of equal pay issues amongst the public
  • enable those in employment easier access to their equal rights
  • promote the case for legal reform.

19It is too early to judge the success of the campaign. Are times changing? Are women more likely to claim their legal rights? Are employers fairer or at least more conscious of the risks taken in the case of pay disparity?

20It is also clear that the method of pay détermination is central to the problem. A number of studies have identified that the gender pay gap is relatively narrow in countries that operate a centralised System of wages. The arrangement of centralised pay tends to be associated with a relatively egalitarian wage structure, which in turn reinforces gender wage equality. Furthermore centralised pay-systems usually include an industry-level or national minimum wage structure which would improve the position of the lower paid women.

21Implementing the principle of work for equal value involves a System of job evaluation to introduce a new pay scale and job grading System. The evaluation of jobs come under the umbrella of equal opportunity policies, which would not only cover the area of equal pay but also cover all aspects of recruitment, training and career development and inappropriate discrimination. However, there again it relies on the employer to allow it to form a key part of the organization’s strategic plan, to set targets for an end to discrimination and monitor the success of reaching those targets.

  • 12 A research, commissioned by the Women’s Unit, Cabinet Office, sought to analyse how cross-sectiona (...)

22After a report by the London School of Economics, on behalf of the government’s women’s unit, Baroness Jay claimed that “the findings would inform future policy-making on issues such as welfare support, the New Deal, childcare and career choices”. She continued “as a government, we will ensure that in the future no women will have to wait years for their right to equal pay to be realised”.12

23Amongst the critics of the current situation are the Trade Union Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission which argue that more needs to be done to increase low wages in female dominated sectors and steps need to be taken to remedy the extra pay penalty for part-time workers. Furthermore the Commission continues to press for assurance that a woman taking time out to have children can return at an equivalent level and not at a lower one.

  • 13 consulted on 23/05/01.

24There are many advantages if women are being paid the same rates as men. It would be positive not only for the individual but for the household and the employer. Among the benefits to be sought is the ability for women to obtain greater economic freedom, which will then lead to a greater source of income in old age. If there were no gender gap women would acquire greater status and dignity at work, through the recognition of their social and economic value. With pay parity there would be increased scope for families to choose a different pattern of division of labour and different working life patterns, and society as a whole would be benefit. Equal Pay would benefit women working at all levels. The advantage to the employers would be a reduction in labour turnover and training costs along with a reduction in wastage of trained women due to childbirth. Data from the British Household Survey reveals that of women who returned from maternity leave full-time, a quarter had left work or switched to part-time working within a year of their return. Within three years of maternity leave, half of all women returning full-time had left their employment or switched to parttime work. Comparisons with other European States are telling. In France for instance, women who take a break from their jobs to have children lose only 1% of their lifetime earnings, whereas in the United Kingdom, they can lose up to 50%. In addition, many fathers who want to take a more active role in childcare cannot do so. Research published by the DfEE has shown that a majority of employers do not allow fathers access to flexible working.13 The challenge ahead is to reform and modernise policies, to fight exclusion, discrimination and inequality, so as to sustain the core values of the European social model. All these proposed legislative measures from Europe, although not specifically aimed at women, once put into practice should improve the position of women working in the United Kingdom.


  • 14 Equal Opportunities Commission, Mainstreaming gender equality in local government: a framework: th (...)
  • 15 “Capitalism, patriarchy and job segregation by sex” in M. Blaxall & B. Reagan (eds.), Women and th (...)
  • 16 A. Philipps & B. Taylor, “Sex and skill: Notes towards a feminist economics”, Feminist Review, no6 (...)

25Changing attitudes can only occur if equality is promoted through all policies and practices. This process is known as mainstreaming which has been defined by the Equal Opportunities Commission as: the integration of equal opportunities into all policy development, implementation, evaluation and review processes.14 In effect mainstreaming is building in equality from the beginning, at national, regional and local levels. The EOC and the government aim to build a greater understanding of the mainstreaming approach so that organisations integrate the needs of all people into decision-making rather than adding on Equal Opportunity strategies afterwards. Heidi Hartman15 argues that job segregation is at the heart of the labour market in capitalist societies. She explains that as capitalism developed and women entered the labour force, it destroyed the family and intensified men’s power over women. The existence of job segregation by sex and women’s lower wages maintains the superiority of men over women. Another issue is the question of gender and skills. According to Philipps and Taylor, “the classification of women’s jobs as unskilled and men’s jobs as skilled or semi-skilled frequently bears little relation to the actual amount of training or ability required. Skill definitions are saturated with sexual bias. The work of women is often deamed inferior simply because it is women who do it. [...] Far from being an objective economic fact, skill is often an ideological category imposed on certain types of work by virtue of sex and power of the workers who perform it”.16 Several reasons can be advanced to explain why women’s jobs are often not classified as skilled: these jobs generally involve short periods of formal training; some were learned informally within the home (e. g. sewing, cooking and childcare) and the trade unions did not in the early days fight to get these jobs defined as skilled.

  • 17 Equal Opportunities Commission, 1999/2000 Annual report: Equality in the 21st century, Manchester, (...)

26One can, however, agree that the family and family history have the crucial role in determining women’s position in the labour market. Their participation will depend on whether they have children or not. It is most crucially affected by the age of the youngest child. Although facilities for caring for children, especially at the nursery stage, is more and more available, the expenses are such that it will determine whether the mother will do paid work (full-time or part-time) and the type of job she can do (close or far from the home, with high or low responsability). It is clear that a woman’s work has to fit in with her domestic responsibilities. Positive action in the workplace is the only way to improve women’s position in the labour market. The issues of recruitment, promotion and training are covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. It can help by outlawing any act of discrimination. But mainstreaming is the way to break the mould and to build equality openly and actively. The annual report and accounts of the EOC in 1999/200017 sets an example: the National Assembly for Wales has established mainstream equality in all the functions for which it is responsible. In practice, this means that all the Assemby’s official business is carried out between 9 am and 5.30 pm, Tuesday to Thursday during school terms only and the Assembly’s strategic plan for Wales for the next decade is built around: equality of opportunities, sustainable development and tackling social disadvantages; finally the Assembly is carrying out a pay review to check if it is delivering equal pay and has drawn the attention of the Assemby Sponsored Public Bodies (such as the Wales Tourist Board and the Welsh Department Agency) to the EOC’s code of practice on Equal Pay. This example demonstrates the promotion of mainstreaming in the structures, working methods and functions first in government policy-making institutions then hopefully to other non governmental areas of work.


27The Equal Opportunity Commission has been established since 1976 as the expert body on equality between women and men in Great Britain. Yet despite two major Acts of Parliament (the Sex DiscriminationAct and the Equal Pay Act), Britain is still subject to inequality. The results of the election in 1997 meant that the British Government was to join the other European Member States in developing a European Social policy. Major policy developments such as the national minimum wage and childcare provisions are working towards eliminating discrimination. In effect, the Labour Government’s Gender Agenda is now tackling the issues of women’s work and working lives. It is particularly important to see that the real change is in integrating the work of the EOC into government policies concerning employment. In particular, the mainstreaming affirmative action and Creative practice in regional governments/assemblies and equality bodies are used as examples for best practices. The convergence of agenda between the Labour Government and the Equal Opportunity Commission in line with the European social policy is strengtheming the existing legislative framework, developing and mainstreaming equality through the social partners, employers and trade unions. It is shaking up the more traditional policies and practices at work by introducing family friendly strategies and redefining women’s relationship to employment.



EQUAL OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, 1999/2000 Annual report: Equality in the 21st century, Manchester, EOC, 2000.

RAKE K., (ed.) Women’s Incomes over the lifetime: A Report to the Women’s Unit, Cabinet Office, Norwich, HMSO, 2000, 212 p.

RUBERY J., The Economics of Equal Value, Manchester, Equal Opportunity Commission, 1992, 120 p.


1 Pamphlet Ministers for Women produced by the Women’s Unit, July 1998.

2 The Ministers for Women consisted of Harriet Harman (Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women in Cabinet), Joan Ruddock (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women but with no DSS responsibilities), Baroness Symons (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and spoke person on women in the House of Lords), Mo Mowlam (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and also the Minister responsible for women’s interests in Northern Ireland), Ron Davies (Secretary of State for Wales and responsible for equal opportunities issues in Wales) and Henry Henry McLeish (Minister of State for Scotland and Minister for Women in Scotland).

3 consulted on 4/6/2001.

4 Ibid.

5 Janet Rubin Lecture, Oxford Brookes University, 2 July 1998.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Parliamentary question on employers employing part-time employees by Mr Rooney to the President of the Board of Trade. Hansard, Commons, 5.5.98, c.38855.

9 Hansard, Commons, 5.5.98, c 265.

10 Ibid.

11 See J. Rubery, The Economics of Equal Value, Manchester, Equal Opportunity Commission, 1992, 120 p.

12 A research, commissioned by the Women’s Unit, Cabinet Office, sought to analyse how cross-sectional differences in pay and labour market participation between women and men added up across their lifetime. See K. Rake, (ed.) Women’s Incomes over the lifetime: A Report to the Women’s Unit, Cabinet Office, Norwich, HMSO, 2000,212 p.

13 consulted on 23/05/01.

14 Equal Opportunities Commission, Mainstreaming gender equality in local government: a framework: the implications of occupational segregation, Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, December 1997, 27 p: p i.

15 “Capitalism, patriarchy and job segregation by sex” in M. Blaxall & B. Reagan (eds.), Women and the workplace, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976, 326 p.

16 A. Philipps & B. Taylor, “Sex and skill: Notes towards a feminist economics”, Feminist Review, no6, 1980, p 79.

17 Equal Opportunities Commission, 1999/2000 Annual report: Equality in the 21st century, Manchester, EOC, 2000.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2003

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