Last week I argued that we need to put equalities issues centre stage when we think about the economy. This week I want to suggest that addressing inequalities in employment should be our focus; it’s in the workplace that both women and people from black and ethnic minority groups face the biggest disadvantages.
Work is central to our lives; to our incomes, our prospects, and our sense of who we are. But while we’ve seen progress in tackling both gender discrimination and racism over the last thirty years , when we look at the workplace we can see just how far we have to go before we can truly suggest that opportunities are equal. (And that’s not to mention the barriers to employment for disabled people, which Liam Byrne set out last week).
This was one of the major conclusions of the National Equality Panel’s comprehensive 2010 report, commissioned by Harriet Harman to look at equality issues across Britain. The report examined income, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality and disability status. Its conclusions were stark:
“Differences in pay by gender and ethnicity remain that are unrelated to qualifications and occupation. The transition from education to the labour market is failing to make the bestuse of people’s talents. …. There still appears to be straightforward discrimination in recruitment, affecting both minority ethnic groups and disabled people, particularly in the private sector.”
The ways in which gender and ethnicity translate into pay and prospects are complex. But it’s clear that it’s not just about what happens before people get to work. While inequalities remain in the education system, there’s still evidence that the best qualifications can’t protect you from discrimination. Girls now outperform boys consistently at age 16, are more likely to go on to tertiary education, and more likely to get a good degree. While in the overall population women are still less likely to have higher qualifications than men, this is reversed for every age below 44. Yet women are still paid significantly less than men: The 2011 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings shows that median hourly pay for men working full time is £13.11, compared to £11.91 for women – a gender pay gap of 9.1%. And because women are significantly more likely to work part time than men, the overall gender pay gap is much larger, at 19.8% in 2010.
The story’s slightly different when it comes to ethnicity, where there remain significant differences in attainment at school, although when controlling for characteristics like poverty, white students are outperformed by nearly all other ethnic groups. While increasing numbers of minority ethnic students are entering higher education, they are more likely to attend less elite universities, less likely to gain a 1st or 2:1 and see smaller employment and earnings gains related to their qualifications than white students. But once again, education doesn’t trump prejudice: research by the Department for Work and Pensions found that when they sent out CVs from candidates with identical qualifications, but names suggesting different ethnicities, they needed to send around twice as many applications from candidates with a black or minority ethnic sounding name to have the same chance of success as those with ‘white’ names.
The solutions to tackling gender equality and the discrimination faced by minority ethnic groups won’t be the same. But by focusing on the workplace we might be able to see where there are common approaches that could promote equality across the board. The DWP research on employment discrimination found that where the organisation’s own application form had been used (and therefore front pages with names could be detached) there was virtually no discrimination, compared to where the application had involved sending in a CV.
That seems like a simple solution to a complex set of problems – and may prove deceptively so. We need to look not only at recruitment practices, but at the role of both education and welfare to work programmes in promoting or challenging entrenched patterns of employment, and at what happens in terms of progression and advancement when people actually get to work. That’s what I’ll be trying to do over the next few months – since the government’s showing little interest. The absence of education , employment or labour market strategies to address structural discrimination and disadvantage demonstrates Ministers’ indifference. But as with the wider economic agenda, it’s only when we look at employment opportunity through an equalities lens that we will identify the obstacles and the solutions.
Kate Green MP is the Shadow Minister for Equalities – this is the second in a series of posts in the coming weeks.