Gender discrimination in the workplace

Gender discrimination is still a feature of our society. The most striking evidence of this is the gender pay gap, which stands at  18.1 per cent overall. This means that for every £1 a man earns, a woman will earn approximately 82p.

Why does the gender pay gap still exist?

The participation of women in the labour market has been increasing steadily over the past two decades, having risen from a rate of 71.3 per cent in 1994 to a rate of 74.5 per cent at the end of 2014, and coincided with a steady upward trend in employment. Despite this increase, a gender pay gap still exists. In April 2016, the gap for full-time employees was 9.4 per cent, down from 9.6 per cent in 2015. For part-time employees, women are paid more on average, with a gap of 6 per cent. Altogether the gap for all employees decreased from 19.3 per cent in 2015 to 18.1 per cent in 2016, the lowest gender pay gap since the survey began in 1997. Whilst this is a significant improvement, progress is slow: It is estimated it will take 53 years to eradicate it. What's more, the UK is now the twentieth most gender-equal country, having slipped from ninth place in 2006.

Part-time segregation

The impact of part-time working has a heavy impact on the overall gender pay gap figure. Whilst the full time pay gap stands at 9.4 per cent, the addition of part-time workers to the measurement increases it to 19.2 per cent. This is because of all part-time workers, women constitute the majority (74 per cent), and are considerably more likely to work part-time hours than men.

For many women, part-time work is a necessity rather than a choice. Women often have more caring and household responsibilities, spending 36 hours per week on these activities, compared to 19 hours for men. The gap is even larger for fathers and mothers: Fathers report spending an average of 24 hours per week on these activities, compared to 49 hours for women.

Caring responsibilities also restrict the distance that women can travel to work, which might mean they are stuck in low-paid part time work. Alongside the practical restrictions on working longer, the decisions women make about their working patterns are also affected by each woman's sense of herself as a woman, worker or mother - with some mothers preferring to look after their children rather than find childcare options.

Occupational segregation

Occupational segregation is a key factor in explaining the gender pay gap, with women tending to be focussed in lower-paid occupations than men. This segregation is identified in two ways: ‘vertical’ segregation, in which men occupy higher paid and skilled positions within the same occupation; or ‘horizontal’ segregation, in which women are employed in different and lower-paid occupations. Of these, horizontal segregation is the most significant in the UK with 60 per cent of females occupying only 10 out of 77 recognised occupations, focusing in ‘the five Cs’: caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical. This directly relates to the part-time issue, as higher-paid industries are often inflexible with working hours.

Other possible explanations for the gap are that women tend not to invest as much as men in their human capital skills, due to other commitments. They are also more likely to have more employment gaps, which may hinder their opportunities for career progression. Whilst there have been initiatives to encourage women into higher paid, male-dominated areas, this has almost exclusively benefitted only highly-educated women. Predominantly “female” jobs, such as social workers and childminders, are essential to the economy and society, yet are often undervalued by low pay.


Direct discrimination also has an impact on the current gender pay gap. A survey by Business Environment, found that a quarter of women have experienced some form of gender discrimination in the workplace. A further 19 per cent surveyed felt they had missed out on a promotion as a direct result of taking maternity leave. This is partly fuelled by dated gender perceptions. A survey from the Attitudes in the Workplace study found that 60 per cent of people said men make better electricians, plumbers and mechanics, and 76 per cent of survey respondents said women make better nannies, florists and nurses. Further to this, only slightly more than half of the participants in London and South West agreed that women can pursue any career they wish. This lack of trust in the ability of women may explain their absence in higher-paid, leadership roles.

Despite significant advances in legislation, the gender pay gap signals a long way to go to achieving gender equality in the UK. Whilst The Equality Act 2010 states that discriminating on the bias of gender is unlawful, there are unsatisfactory enforcement procedures. There needs to be increased transparency within companies and appropriate checks to ensure anti-discriminatory laws are being enacted.

Saveena Mangat is a research assistant at Bright Blue

This blog has been written as part of our human rights and conservatism research project. Each week we will publish a blog post to accompany video footage of our oral evidence sessions. This week, we are publishing the session on Human Rights and Gender. Attendees include: Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society, Sarah Churchman, Head of Diversity & Inclusion and Employee Wellbeing at PWC, Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid and Jessica Asato, Public Affairs Officer at Safe Lives.