Please, sir, we girls want some more

Cristina Odone reveals that Britain still tops the European league for sexism, and that the gender p

Poor Baroness Jay. There she was, hoping to hand in her notice as Leader of the House of Lords and minister for women and tiptoe out of the back door with as little fanfare as possible - and then those nasty little busybodies at the Equal Opportunities Commission complete a survey that will trumpet the failure of her Women's Unit. To be fair, the findings, out on 27 February, are as much an indictment of new Labour as of the unit it created to look after women's interests: in terms of equal pay and equal opportunities, Britain is the most sexist place to work in Europe.

Red faces all around. The party that had raised such hopes and manufactured such hype about its pro-women agenda - remember all the boasts about more female MPs than ever before; remember the ground-breaking, breastfeeding Blair Babes - will now enter the general election with a set of stats calculated further to alienate female voters who, to the tune of one million, already say they've gone off the government.

The picture is bleak indeed. If you care about how your wage packet compares with the man who does the very same job as you, you're better off in France, Germany or even Portugal. The wage gap in these countries is less than in Britain - where a woman working full-time earns just 82 per cent of her male colleague's salary. (For a part-time female worker that percentage sinks to 60.) If you care about paid maternity leave, you'd better up sticks and move to Italy (where a mother gets five months' paid leave) or Finland (nine months - as well as 42 days for paternity leave): in Britain, you'll get a paltry 18 weeks. Add to this poor childcare provision and, in predominantly female professions such as nursing, an average pay of 6 per cent less than overall average male earnings in the UK, and you can see why the European Council of Ministers told the UK to get down to work on closing the pay gap.

They have their work cut out for them. Thirty years since the Equal Pay Act was passed, and 25 since it came into force, women find the workplace as inimical as the factory caricatured in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Talk to staff at the EOC, and they can name endless cases of women who have had to take their employers to court to receive fair treatment. Take Dr Lorna Chessum, a female lecturer at Leicester's De Montfort University who discovered she had been appointed on a lower salary - £6,000 less - than a similarly qualified male colleague. She received £10,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement in September 2000. Or Doreen McManus, who worked as a payroll administrator for Rentokil. She claimed that over three years she did the same work as a male colleague, whom she trained and who was paid £3,000 more than her. She took the matter up with her employer, who agreed to review her pay. Her salary was increased - but she was still earning less than her colleague. She lodged an equal pay claim and Rentokil settled the case, paying her £10,500 compensation.

Two small victories in a war we thought was won long ago. A war in which we cannot count on either government or employer as an ally. Jill Rubery, as the co-ordinator of the European Commission's expert group on gender and equality, was present when the commission, having seen the UK's National Action Plan for Employment last year, publicly reprimanded the country for its appalling employment figures. "Immediately, hands went up and our civil servants started to rubbish the data as insufficient and emphasise the high employment rate we have for women in Britain - which is well above the 60 per cent target by 2010 set in Lisbon in 1999."

The spin machine is likely to go into overdrive with the EOC survey, too, despite its impressive credentials: the research was carried out by the NOP group in the summer last year. It involved a telephone survey of senior human resource managers in 301 larger organisations, each with at least 200 employees; telephone interviews with national trade union officials; and in-depth case study research in 21 selected organisations.

While government apologists may spin against the EOC survey for painting too gloomy a picture of the working woman's lot, critics of the government - including some employment experts - suspect that the survey in fact lets the government off lightly. Mary Davis, who heads the Centre for Trade Union Studies at the University of North London, argues that "industry by industry, the gender pay gap has actually widened since 1997. I see no evidence, apart from the introduction of the national minimum wage, to support the view that we are witnessing a narrowing of the gap. Among working-class women, certainly, things have got worse. If you're living in a textile town, for instance, with the industry bottoming out right beneath your feet, you are far poorer than before."

Jill Rubery, who together with Damian Grimshaw carried out the research review for the EOC, feels that even some of the state's poverty-busting initiatives have had a negative impact on women's wages. The working families tax credit, for example, "contradicted the equal pay ethos by trapping the second income-earner in a low-paying job". Moreover, as both Davis and Rubery point out, a government which believes that any regulation hinders the market, and has abdicated all responsibility for pay structure, cannot intervene in the one area that most affects the gender pay gap.

The market, indeed, has become a fig leaf behind which employers can hide discrimination: you can get away with paying Jane less than Joe by signing them up to individualised contracts. There are a million weasel words which will allow you to claim that what she is doing for you is not exactly the same as what he does. Equally, there are many ways of explaining away why promotion keeps eluding her.

The trade unions, once the battering rams for victims of unfair treatment at work, have lost their bite. Collective bargaining has declined in recent years; today, less than one in three workplaces is covered by it.

Meanwhile, the employer's accountability has grown ever more nebulous. In an increasing number of situations, there is no single, clear-cut employer - as is the case when work has been subcontracted, or where joint ventures or partnerships operate. This makes it difficult to uphold legislation that is based on "comparable work for the same employer". The further fragmentation of the public sector, through the contracting-out of services to the private sector, also contributes to the difficulty in monitoring the wage differential. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs gets the thumbs up from employers - 93 per cent of those who took part in the EOC survey cheerfully believed their pay systems were fair.

Those of us who feel that if Jane and Joe carry out the same work they should bring home the same pay packet will simply have to provide fodder for the EOC's case studies. Or move to Lisbon.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more