Students’ UK Discussion Group: Gender Equality in the UK

gapThis post, written by Peter Willis (MPP) and Amy Woolfson (Kennedy Scholar), recaps the third meeting of a new UK discussion group among British students and anglophiles from across Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group convened in spring 2016 on a weekly basis to discuss the most difficult and pressing issues facing the UK today–bridging disciplines to present viable policy solutions. The discussion highlighted below explored gender equality in the UK—current attitudes towards gender equality, women in the workplace, and the government’s role in promoting equality. The Ash Center is delighted to support student initiatives like the UK discussion group as well as other opportunities to contribute to public discourse on both the challenges to democratic governance and promising solutions. Read other posts in the UK discussion group series


By Peter Willis and Amy Woolfson

The Equal Pay Act 1970 made it unlawful for employers to pay women less than men for the same or similar work.  But in 2015 the Office of National Statistics reported the pay gap between working men and women was 19.2%.

Similarly, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it unlawful to discriminate against women in employment, public life or the provision of goods and services.  But women are still under-represented in parliament, on boards, in academia, in the judiciary, in the media, and in countless other aspects of public life.

Should the Government intervene to increase gender equality, and if so, how?  Or should we focus on changing attitudes?  How do we manage the tension between religious and cultural practices in the UK and ideas of gender equality?



The 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey shows a decline in support for traditional gender roles.  In 1984, 49% of the public agreed with the statement ‘a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and the family’.  Support for this statement has steadily declined, down to 13% in 2012.  Similarly, in 1989, 64% of the public believed that mothers of pre-school age should stay at home, compared to 33% in 2012.

gender attitudes

Source: NatCen Social Research, British Social Attitudes 30, “Gender Roles”


Despite this transformation in attitudes, and the increasing presence of women in the workplace, women still spend far more time working unpaid in the home.  Women typically spend 36 hours per week either doing domestic work or caring for family members, compared to 18 hours for men.

As well as gender roles, our discussion considered attitudes toward feminism.  The Fawcett Society’s 2016 annual ‘state of the nation’ report on sex equality noted that whilst 67% of people say they support equality for women and men, only 7% of people would describe themselves as feminist.

Source: Fawcett, Sex Equality State of the Nation 2016

Source: Fawcett, Sex Equality State of the Nation 2016


Support for equality of opportunity increases with age: 78% of those aged 18-34 support it whilst 87% of those over 55 do.  In terms of geographic distribution, London is home to some of the country’s least liberal views:  Londoners are the most likely to believe that equality has gone too far – 14% of people living in the capital believe that, compared to 10% in Northern Ireland and Scotland. 12% of women in London believe that women’s equality has gone too far.



The gender pay gap has declined, from around 27% in 1997 to 19.2% today, but there is a large variance between professions.  Women working full-time in financial services and insurance are paid around 34% less than men.  The gender pay gap increases with income:  from around 6% for women in the 10th income percentile to 20% for women in the 90th income percentile.

Source: House of Commons Briefing Paper Number 07068, 18 November 2015, “Gender Pay Gap”

Source: House of Commons Briefing Paper Number 07068, 18 November 2015, “Gender Pay Gap”


At the lower end of the income spectrum, the introduction of the National Minimum Wage in 1999 is likely to have contributed to the decline in the gender pay gap. At the higher end, income is more likely to be boosted by bonuses, which tend to favor men over women[1].

People responsible for recruitment decisions are sometimes described as ‘gatekeepers’ to gender equality in the workforce.  The Fawcett Society’s research shows that this group is less likely than their peers to be in favor of gender equality.  Sixteen percent of people involved in recruitment believe that gender equality has gone too far, compared with 10% of the general population.  And whilst 62% of men and women believe more needs to be done to achieve gender equality, on 51% of people involved in recruitment share this view.

Related to the issue of the gender pay, between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies doubled, from 12.5% to 25%.  However, the majority of this growth came from an increase in non-executive directors (from 117 in 2010 to 260 in 2015) rather than in executive roles (18 in 2010 to 26 in 2015).  Only three FTSE 100 companies are chaired by a woman.  This perhaps shows the limits of government intervention – it is fairly straightforward to measure the number of women in an organization.  It is much harder to measure their influence.

Source: Lord Davis, Women on Boards Davis Review, Five Year Summary October 2015

Source: Lord Davis, Women on Boards Davis Review, Five Year Summary October 2015



Many people believe that the state should play an increased role in promoting gender equality.  The Government has said that by 2018, it will legislate to:

  • force larger employers to publish information about their bonuses for men and women as part of their gender pay gap reporting
  • extend plans for gender pay gap reporting beyond private and voluntary sector employers to include the public sector
  • work with business to eliminate all-male boards in the FTSE 350

Gender equality is not just an issue in the secular world.  The Church of England has ordained female priests since 1994 and bishops since 2015.  But only 23% of full-time parish roles and 11% of senior roles are filled by women[2].  Practices within many other religions in the UK also conflict with secular ideas of gender equality.  Many question whether the UK is striking the right balance between respect for religious and cultural differences and universal application of the law.

In terms of interventions, the discussion group distinguished between shorter and longer term policy ideas.  Shorter term policies discussed included making parental leave more equal, de-gendering official language, increasing support for low-income women, and targeting attitude changes among recruiters.  Longer term, there was a consensus that societal attitudes about gender (particularly towards children) need to change, though there was less consensus about what government’s proper role in that might be.


Peter Willis is an MPP candidate, interested in using technology to improve the delivery of government services. He has a history degree from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Amy Woolfson is a Kennedy Scholar from London, UK.  She is currently studying for the LL.M. at Harvard Law School.  She has an undergraduate degree in law from The Open University





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