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Equality and diversity: Women

Many women enjoy successful careers and manage to combine rewarding employment whilst maintaining a family and a social life. At the same time the entrenched inequalities of the past continue to cast a shadow.

However, the situation is improving. The enforcement of sex equality began 40 years ago with the Equal Pay Act. In subsequent decades, the gap between men and women’s pay has narrowed substantially. In 2010, according to the National Statistics website, the full-time gender pay gap stood at around 10.2%, down from 12.2% in 2009. However, at higher levels of industry and business, change has been slow. According to corporate governance group, Manifest, of the top 250 FTSE companies, there are only 24 female executive directors. Former trade minister Lord Davies is leading an enquiry that will ensure that by 2015, women will make up 25% of directors in the UK’s largest public companies.

Despite the fact that girls do as well, or better than boys whilst in education, there still seems to be a gap in pay levels. A number of factors play a part in this:

  • Women tend to gravitate to the public sector, where graduate salaries can be on the low side. Men head in greater numbers into technology and business in the private sector where pay is better.

    Despite the fact that girls do as well, or better than boys whilst in education, there still seems to be a gap in pay levels.

  • Across most fields, when promotions are being considered, masculine qualities of confidence and forcefulness may be given greater weight than women’s typical strengths in people skills.
  • As careers progress, an often decisive factor is played by the demands of childcare and the family which may remove women from the workplace for crucial years, or at least divide their attention. 
  • Downright discrimination also plays a part, despite being unlawful - for example, Sir Alan Sugar said he would think twice before employing women who might become pregnant.
  • Women are sometimes judged on appearance in a way that men are not.

Men can suffer from discrimination as well as women, finding it difficult to make headway in traditionally female-dominated professions - notably nursing and primary teaching.

What are my legal rights?

Under the Equality Act 2010 it's unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you because of your sex. Sex discrimination law covers almost all workers (men and women) and all types of organisations in the UK. It covers:

  • Recruitment
  • Employment terms and conditions
  • Pay and benefits
  • Training
  • Promotion and transfer opportunities
  • Redundancy
  • Dismissal

The Employment Act 2002 promoted flexible working. Parents of children under five have the right to ask for flexible working and their employer must consider such requests seriously, although they do not have to be granted.

To enforce the laws against discrimination, complainants must take their cases to Employment Tribunals. Anyone considering making a claim needs to gain advice and representation from bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Citizens Advice Bureaux, trades unions and law centres.

How can I make my application successful?

Women’s professional networks and sections of professional organisations can be helpful for contacts and mentoring.

Getting the best possible start to your career following university is important for future success. You need to be able to sell yourself - explaining to each recruiter how you meet their specific requirements including both skills and qualifications. There is no room for normal levels of tentativeness when making applications and discussing them with interview panels.

Your case will be stronger if while at university you take whatever opportunities you can to develop skills for employment through experience in societies, voluntary organisations and in the work place through both paid employment and internships. Experience in the field you are aiming for is most useful. Women’s professional networks and sections of professional organisations can be helpful for contacts and mentoring.

It can be worth looking out for recruiters that voice a commitment to equality and diversity on their websites. The best employers will want people to know about their family-friendly approach and flexible working options. Some recruiters run particular events for female students and graduates because of their concern to remedy gender imbalances in their staff.

However, realistically in the current highly competitive graduate job market, you may be unable to limit your search to employers who voice a commitment to equality. You have a right to expect every employer to give your applications fair consideration.


Further information

Written by Editor, Graduate Prospects
September 2011

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