Women and Work Commission: Closing the gender divide

After 18 months of wrangling, the government-appointed Women and Work Commission has finally reported its recommendations on how to close the gender pay gap. Employers will be relieved to hear they have got off rather lightly.

The gender pay gap – which stands at 17% for full-time workers and 40% for part-timers – is not rooted in bad business practice, according to CBI deputy director-general, John Cridland, who sat on the commission.

This view was borne out in the report, which ignored demands to force firms to carry out equal pay audits.

Much of what was recommended by the 15-strong commission centres on overhauling education and careers advice to give women options beyond the ‘Five Cs’ – catering, cashiering, caring, cleaning and clerical roles.

However, a number of the 40 recommendations will be of interest to employers. It is difficult to judge whether the government will go for them, as it is notoriously fickle about implementing recommendations from its own commissions. For example, the Gershon Report on government efficiency has led to wide-ranging cuts in the Civil Service, whereas Mike Tomlinson’s proposed education reforms received a frosty reception.

One proposal that will require a major government U-turn if it is implemented is the recommendation that many employers fear most. This proposal calls on the Discrimination Law Review (DLR), which is looking into changes in legislation in this area, to consider legalising class actions in equal pay disputes.

The government has said in the past that changing the law to allow group litigation would be a step too far and would require “a fundamental review of our whole approach” to discrimination law.

But Baroness Prosser, chair of the commission, who has strong backing from prime minister Tony Blair, told Personnel Today it was “daft” that the DLR cannot consider class actions.

It looks like a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object, but all will be revealed when the DLR reports in the summer.

Recommendations for employers to watch

  • The DTI should set up a £5m fund to support new initiatives to make more senior jobs open to part-time and flexible working.
  • The right to request flexible working should be extended over time to cover a wider group of employees.
  • Employers should ensure all managers are regularly and continually trained on diversity and flexibility issues.
  • Trade unions should train their representatives to promote the benefits of flexible working and win the hearts and minds of management and staff.
  • Fiscal incentives should be targeted at small firms to reduce the additional costs of employing part-time or flexible workers – for example, training costs and start-up IT costs.
  • A £20m package should be set up to pilot measures designed to raise women’s skill levels, including free Level 3 training (match-funded by the employer), which should be piloted with employers from the ‘Five C’ sectors.
  • The Low Pay Commission should target sectors employing large numbers of women when enforcing the National Minimum Wage.
    Another £5m funding for the Union Modernisation Fund to support staff involvement in workplace equality development.
  • The DTI should build a set of exemplar companies willing to pilot projects, such as actively promoting quality part-time jobs and undertaking equal pay reviews.
  • The Treasury should ask public sector employers to account for their progress on equal pay during the Comprehensive Spending Review.
  • Public authorities should ensure their contractors promote gender equality in line with the public sector Gender Duty, and equal pay in line with current law.
  • The Discrimination Law Review should consider more fully the question of group equal pay claims and hypothetical comparators.Was it all worth it?

Was it all worth it?


  • “The commission was right to reject compulsory equal pay audits and to focus instead on the complex web of issues that contribute to the persistent gender pay gap. Only when employers explore the underlying issues can processes be improved and fairness achieved.”
    Dianah Worman, diversity adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
  • “Employers welcome the report’s recommendations to ensure that part-time work is not seen as a second-class option and to give women returners the training they need to access better-paid jobs.”
    John Cridland, deputy director-general, CBI
  • “The proposal for the government’s Discrimination Law Review to consider the adoption of class actions and hypothetical comparators is a good place to start. We fully support these proposals.”
    Jenny Watson, chair, Equal Opportunities Commission


  • “There is a sense of disappointment that the commission has not recommended compulsory equal pay audits. While some recommendations are welcome, they don’t go far enough in addressing the scandal of pay inequality.”
    Janice Godrich, president, Public and Commercial Services union
  • “This report has short-changed a generation of women. These measures alone will not bring change quickly enough for women who are currently being paid too little. It’s not enough to encourage employers to change – that’s been happening for years, but change is too slow.”
    Katherine Rake, director, women’s lobby group, the Fawcett Society
  • “This report deliberately misses the point. The pay gap is due to discrimination by employers, not because women make bad career choices. To get pay justice, individual women need to take lengthy legal cases. Without compulsory pay audits, women will wait until doomsday for equal pay.”
    Derek Simpson, general secretary, Amicus


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