Culture and change: last session of Women and Skills Commission

I went into the Palace of Westminster for the final public hearing of the Women and Skills Commission, with Secretary of State Maria Miller and Parliamentary Under-Secretary Jo Swinson.  Maria Miller is SofS for Culture, Media and Sport;  she attended the Commission, I assume, because she carries the equalities brief (being one of the very few women in the cabinet….), whereas Jo Swinson represents  the Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills .  (No sign of DBIS’ SofS, Vince Cable…).

Perhaps ironically, Ms Miller in fact spent a lot of time talking about culture  – not her ministerial diet of theatre and music, but culture at work.  She stressed the need for a culture change if women are to get appropriate chances at work.  Some of the Committee , notably Ann McKechin from Glasgow, were particularly interested in how to bring this about without setting some demanding targets, for example on the proportion of engineering apprenticeships to be occupied by women.  This, Ms McKechin pointed out, had flatlined –  only some 400 out of about 10,000 and no progress now for several years.  Why, she wanted to know, were targets acceptable at the top (for women directors, following the Davies report) but not for the humbler apprenticeship?

The Conservative MP Nadhim Zadawi was also interested in speed:  how fast the pay gap is expected to close.   Fundamentally pay comparisons, to make any sense, have to be between people doing similar jobs, ie at the same level in similar organisations and for the same hours.  But of course the gender angle brings in at least two other dimensions:  the fact that women typically do different kinds of job, and that they typically work fewer hours.  This complicates the pay equality issue – though it does not remotely obscure the fact of inequality.

This in turn relates very closely to the question of lagtime, which is central to the PP.   I have traced out the points at which girls and women have overtaken boys and men, at various educational  levels.   Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect the fact that women are entering the labour market with better qualifications to have an instant impact on relative female/male career profiles.  But it is not unreasonable to ask, as Mr Nadhim did, how long we should expect to wait before the profiles change.

The PP then complicates the issue further by pointing out that women’s higher levels of competence should, according to pure human capital theory, mean that they actually achieve not just equal but higher pay or careers.  But the Committee did not have time to get on to that juicy proposition.


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