Firms could soon be forced to carry out equality audits to make sure women are paid the same as their male colleagues.
Communities secretary Ruth Kelly has formally launched a major action plan to tackle the barriers faced by women in the workplace.
The new proposals are aimed at addressing almost 40 recommendations made by the Women and Work Commission in its Shaping a Fairer Future report, published in February.
Among the proposals is a new ‘equality check’ that will ‘help companies spot any emerging problems with equal treatment of staff such as determining the level of gender pay gap’.
This move comes despite the commission concluding that the gender pay gap was not rooted in bad business practice, but rather in poor careers advice.
Kelly said there were sound economic reasons for enabling women to harness their full potential.
“The Women and Work Commission suggests helping women harness their full potential is worth up to £23bn a year to the UK economy,” she said. “So my message to business is clear: this is not about political correctness, this is about improving your profit margins.”
The commission’s chair, Baroness Margaret Prosser, said she was pleased that the Women and Work Commission’s recommendations were being taken forward by so many government departments.
“If government, trade unions and business continue to work together, I believe that we can make a real difference to the lives of millions of working women in this country,” she said. “I expect that this action plan will be vigorously followed through and look forward to hearing about progress next year.”
The other measures announced today include:
- A major new ‘Exemplar Employer Initiative’, where the government will work with employers to develop programmes on areas such as helping women returning from work gain access to quality part-time work, flexible working for women and setting up job-share registers. More than 80 organisations have already signed up for the scheme, ranging from high-street names to small businesses and public sector organisations.
- The roll-out of new ‘equality reps’ across England. The scheme will step up awareness among workers of flexible working rights and discrimination issues by working alongside statutory union representatives.
- A national education standard in schools, to step up cultural change by making girls aware of non-traditional career opportunities. This will come into force from April 2007 to ensure all young people receive careers information, advice and guidance which is free from gender stereotyping.
- A new £500,000 pound fund to support companies and organisations in increasing the number of senior and quality roles available part time.
Kelly also announced that all jobs in her own department will now be advertised as being available on a flexible or part-time basis.
“Today’s parents find it difficult to balance professional and family commitments – the role of government should be to help them make the decisions that suit them and their families,” she said.
“The proposals we are setting out today aim to establish a change in culture from the playground to the boardroom. Just because a woman decides to trade down her hours, doesn’t mean she should trade down her status.”