Equal Pay a Long Way off; Statistics Reveal That Women Are Still Likely to Get Paid Less Than Male Counterparts

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Byline: MARY MINIHAN

MORE than 40 per cent of women earn under pounds 100 a week, compared with fewer than 20 per cent of men, according to a recent Government report.

Statistics from the Cabinet Office also reveal that a woman's average weekly wage is less than half of a man's.

Low-paid Ulster women have traditionally found employment as cleaners, canteen workers, auxiliary hospital staff, and part-time factory workers on late-night ''housewife'' shifts.

Trade Union spokeswoman Fiona Marshall, of the TGWU, says wage inequality in Northern Ireland stems from an historical segregation of the sexes in the job market.

''Traditionally, jobs women do have been undervalued. To me there is nothing more important than looking after children, but pay has always been low in that sector,'' she says.

And in the year 2001, she believes the prospect of women taking time off work to have children can still pose problems for prospective employers.

''If a boss is choosing between a man and a woman, there's a lot of the old stereotype that women are going to be off work for family-related reasons. Nobody will admit to that but it still happens,'' she says.

Ms Marshall says the introduction of the minimum wage helped women who were being exploited by unscrupulous employers, but much of the equality legislation remains unworkable in practice.

''It's an impossible piece of legislation to take a case under. You can be talking about 10 to 12 years from a case is taken until it is resolved.''

Recent moves by the Assembly to simplify and speed-up industrial tribunal procedures in equal pay cases have been welcomed.

Even in the higher-paid professions, such as the law, a sizeable gap remains between male and female incomes.

A recent Equality Commission survey found that one in three male solicitors in the Province earned more than pounds 50,000 a year, while only one in 20 female solicitors earned that much.

Spokeswoman Irene Kingston says this disparity cannot be explained in terms of education, qualifications and experience.

''There's a mysterious element in it that appears not to have any rational explanation. Scratch the surface of any of these issues and you are in very deep water,'' she says.

Ms Kingston says women's employment opportunities have changed enormously since legislation outlawing sex discrimination in the workplace came into force 25 years ago.

''Things have changed enormously. There are women in jobs you would never have imagined possible in the early 70s but the same intractable issues exist.

''The glass ceiling is still there. The fact is there are still few women in board rooms and in decision-making levels of management. You can get so far until you see the very top of the ladder, but somehow you're just not breaking through.''

The Women's Coalition has warned ongoing pay inequality could damage Northern Ireland's ability to compete in the world-wide economy. …