UK failing to achieve workplace equality

Conventional wisdom dictates that longer maternity leave and generous family-friendly provisions make it easier for women to return to the workforce and maintain their careers.

This is exactly the stance adopted by Swedish employment legislation. Sweden has been ranked top in the world for implementing equality measures by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. So should the UK follow suit, or does a closer examination of the Swedish model show that it is simply a case of ‘true lies?’

The UK model

Equal pay and sex discrimination legislation have been in force in the UK since 1975, but have yet to eliminate a worsening gender pay gap, which currently is, as an average, 17% for full-time workers, according to the Women and Work Commission.

The commission recently indicated that, after childbirth, most women are in what they term low- to mid-level skilled jobs, as these are more compatible with flexible working, and only one-third of workers at managerial level or above are women.

The Swedish experience

Sweden enjoys a much narrower gender pay gap and has maintained a relatively high birth rate compared to the UK, where birth rates are falling and a shortage of skilled labour looms (Newsweek, 2006).

Swedish legislation provides far more generous provisions – even without the new UK legislation (see box below) – so that in Sweden, on any given day, 20% of all female workers are off on some form of paid leave.

Patricia Morgan, in her report Family Policy, Family Changes: Sweden, Italy and Britain Compared, suggests that, compared with the US and the UK, “Sweden has the most gender-segregated workforce[and] has a larger glass ceiling problem than the US, where family-friendly policies are almost non-existent”.

While Swedish legislation makes it easier for women to work and have a family life, this only appears to impact on low- to mid-level jobs.

Whereas women in the US held 45.3% of managerial positions, their Swedish peers held only 29.2% (33% in the UK). Despite an average pay gap of 15%, the differential can exceed 40% in high-paid jobs in Sweden (Newsweek, 2006).

Therefore the measures introduced to get women into the workforce may actually be keeping them out or, at the very least, preventing them from achieving the same outcomes as men.

What next?

Rather than giving more generous Swedish-like provisions, perhaps UK employers should follow the American dream.

In the far less protective environment of the US, women are more likely to get to the higher-ranking positions, suggesting the glass ceiling does not create such an obstacle.

Arguably, there is support for UK legislation adopting a mid-Atlantic position, with more robust provisions and fewer proactive measures than those included in the new laws.

One thing is clear: the UK has a long way to go before it achieves the ultimate dream of a workforce that has true, career-long work-life balance.

The new provisions may not, however, be a step in that direction.

Head to head

Swedish measures:

  • State-funded childcare
  • Extensive maternity benefits of 480 days with up to 80% of pay
  • Each parent can reduce the working day by up to 25% of normal working hours until their child is eight or finishes their first school year
  • Generous sick-leave provisions once mothers return to work.

UK measures:

(Work and Families Act, October 2006)

  • New ‘keep in touch’ days
  • Extension of maternity pay period to 39 weeks
  • Removal of length-of-service qualifying criteria for additional maternity leave
  • Option for women to transfer some unused maternity leave entitlement to their partner.

Employment relations minister Jim Fitzpatrick outlines the benefits of the new UK legislation in the September issue of Employers’ Law magazine

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