Some 132 years ago, Clementina Black, the leader of the Women’s Trade Union League, won the support of the major trade unions for equal pay at the Trades Unions Congress. That same year, 1,400 female match factory workers – the matchgirls – went on strike in protest at poor wages and appalling conditions. The strike is widely regarded as a seminal moment in Britain’s social and labour history.
Where previously so-called craft unions had been the exclusive preserve of skilled workers and artisans, the matchgirls dispute was key in the development of the “new unionism”, when unskilled and semi-skilled workers began to organise independently.
It was several generations later when in Dagenham and Halewood, sewing machinists at two Ford plants went on strike demanding equal pay with their male counterparts. This dispute halted production, and led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
Although slow but definite progress has been made as women have organised and attitudes have changed, the figures shown here are testament to how much still needs to be done.
Read more: An equitable future
The Office for National Statistics has reported that the gender pay gap is close to zero for full-time employees under 40, but after middle age it widens considerably.
Some have speculated that this is the result of a lingering tendency for mothers to take on more responsibility for childcare than fathers, hampering opportunities for promotion. Discriminatory (and unlawful) hiring practices persist, as some employers fear periods of maternity leave.
What is certain is that women are over-represented in low-paid professions in the hospitality, leisure and care sectors. Many have been on the frontline against coronavirus in hospitals and care homes. But for those in hospitality and retail, the Covid-19 recession is likely to hit particularly hard.
Further progress on gender equality will be as much about raising salaries and standards for those at the bottom as it is about ensuring proper representation at the top. The data here reflects serious under-representation in the boardrooms of large companies, but it will be of little comfort to low-paid, female catering or cleaning staff that those responsible for their inadequate wages and insecure work are also female.
It is women workers who have felt the effects of austerity most sharply, and any post-Covid fiscal constraints may fall on women still further. The Fawcett Society, a charity campaigning for equal pay, has said that the UK is at a “coronavirus crossroads on gender equality”. Perhaps securing the livelihoods of those on the ground floor is now as important as smashing the glass ceiling.