Girl power? Reality, fantasy or chimera?

March 3, 2011


Susan Buckingham is a Professor in the Centre for Human Geography and Director of Social Work, at Brunel University in West London. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters is hosting a live blog on March 8, 2011, to mark International Women’s Day.

In a recent public lecture on “Changing Britain” at Brunel University, I explored the proposition that society is becoming feminised. I examined current pay and employment data to argue that, while some statistics can be used to argue that some women are becoming more equal with men in some areas, the failure of women to significantly penetrate key decision making bodies, and continuing horizontal job segregation means that “girl power” is more a chimera than reality in the UK today.

Drawing from my own research in the environmental sector, I propose that this is not only problematic for women, as they continue to earn less than their male counterparts and face additional barriers to career progression and being appointed in key decision making roles, but that the failure of the country to capitalise on a significant share of its experience, expertise and intellect limits society as a whole.

A cursory glance at education figures for the UK may suggest that gender equality is being achieved. More women students are entering higher education, and now outnumber men (59 percent of all students in 2008 – 2009). They outperform their male colleagues, with 64 percent of women students achieving 1st and upper second degrees in 2008 – 2009, compared with 59 percent of men.

However, it is instructive to consider how women and men students are distributed. It is clear that women gravitate strongly to particular disciplines, and that these can be linked to lower pay.

For example, between 76 percent to 85 percent of social work, nursing, occupational therapy and physiotherapy students are women, where the average advertised pay for these jobs ranges between 26,000 – 29,900 pounds.

However, in architecture, building and planning, computer science and engineering and technology, women represent between 16 and 40 percent of the student body, and these professions advertised pay varies between 32,000 and 60,000 pounds.

So while the greater numbers of women entering higher education may be seen as a reason to be optimistic about greater gender equality, the financial undervaluing of graduates of subjects in which women dominate can equally give us cause for concern.

Employment in higher education illustrates persisting vertical job segregation. EU data shows that at PhD level, although 48 percent of PhD registrations are female, only 45 percent comprise PhD graduates. Women then hold 44 percent of Grade C academic posts, 36 percent of Grade B posts and 18 percent of Grade A posts.

This is a situation reflected in the UK where 53 percent of lecturers, 66 percent of all senior lecturers and readers, and 83 percent of all professors are male.

It could be argued that these proportions will change over time, as the larger proportions of women earning good degrees work through the system. If that were the case, we could at least expect equal pay amongst graduates. However, the gender pay gap for people in their 20s is reported at 5 percent, and the Graduate Accountancy Scheme has recently warned female graduates of accounting that they “should expect a gender pay gap”. In Law, too, junior grades record a gender pay gap of 13 percent.

While in some areas, the gender pay gap may be decreasing (the ONS reports a 2 percentage point decrease in the gender pay gap for full time workers from 2009 to 2010, to 10.2 percent, and for all workers a decrease of 2.2 percentage points to 19.8), in others it is increasing. ONS data for senior civil servants’ salaries reveal a widening gender pay gap.

In governmental decision making, 17 elected heads of state are women, and, regardless of one’s politics, the election of women to the premiership in countries such as Germany, Brazil, Australia, Liberia and Bangladesh has to be heartening, despite that this is less than 10 percent of the global heads of state.

In the UK, 22 percent of MPs are women, and the proportion of women ministers has dropped considerably, to 17 percent, under the coalition government, reinforcing that gains in one term do not automatically lead to a trend.

In business, company boards in the EU have 22 percent female membership, falling to 10 percent in the ‘blue chip’ companies. In the UK women made up only 12.5 percent of directors of the FTSE 100 and 7.8 percent of the FTSE 250 companies in 2010.

This situation is such that Lord Davies of Abersoch’s independent review of board membership recommends a target of 25 percent board membership by 2015 for FTSE 100 companies.

One might wonder why this is important. A McKinsey Report has recently argued that having a critical mass of women on company boards  not only improves financial performance, but also can be linked to better leadership and innovation.

This should not surprise us since women’s micro-credit schemes, pioneered in South Asia, have long reported that investing in women has far reaching effects on families and communities, and that women are more effective in repaying loans.

The Norwegian “40 percent” experiment in which all publically listed companies were required to appoint at least 40 percent women board members by 2008 has met with generally positive results, such that Spain has adopted a similar measure, and other European countries are considering this.

If, as it seems, a critical mass of women in decision making posts makes a positive difference to the performance of an organization, nowhere would this seem more critical than in environmentally related professions and decision making. And yet, these professions are dominated by men (in the UK 30 percent of workers in transport are women; 27 percent in energy and water; 22 percent in architecture).

Research I have undertaken for the EU in respect of gender mainstreaming in municipal waste management has starkly revealed the high proportion of men in management. This is partly a function of waste management promoting its engineering staff, resulting in engineering and technological solutions to intractable waste problems being privileged.

In the few authorities where women were employed as waste managers (and interestingly were drawn from management and education backgrounds rather than engineering), a marked improvement in alternatives to waste disposal, and greater innovation in changing waste management behaviour, was evident.

But a consideration of gender was far from the minds of most people we interviewed – many asking us what the relevance of gender was . This kind of thinking is writ large in global environmental decision making, where the contrast between those making decisions, and those suffering environmental problems most (disproportionately women, because of their relative poverty and social roles which expose them more to environmental problems than men), is stark.

The problems the UK and the world need to address (whether linked to climate change, or energy, water and food availability) need innovative thinking generated by a diversity of decision makers, and need to draw on the energy and creativity of more than 50 percent of the population. We certainly cannot afford to wait for the 212 years the Fawcett Society has estimated it will take, extrapolating current trends, for gender equality in employment.

Photo Credit: Dealers monitor their screens on the trading floor of IG Index in London May 6, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

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You must also consider whether the jobs that pay less generate less revenue/profit and/or have a larger supply of candidates to fill those jobs. Here in the USA the differences in salary of PTs and OTs varies state to state and is determined more or less by these factors. Its not so much by gender.

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