Addressing the needs of entire families can close the gender pay gap

10 November 2015

The strength of the WI is its diversity. Ask any of our 212,000 members across our 6,500 Institutes and they’ll tell you the same thing: the WI can be anything to any member. This diversity makes the WI fun and lively, but it makes advocating for policy that speaks to all of our members more difficult.

That’s why we leave it completely to the membership to decide what issues the WI campaigns on. One issue that has remained close to members’ hearts and minds from our founding one hundred years ago until today is gender equality both in the home and in the workplace. Members began informally campaigning for equal pay in the 1920s and in 1943, the WI became one the first organisations in the UK to publicly call for equal pay for equal work. For decades, WI members campaigned for equality of pay and opportunity in the workplace and in wider society, passing several other mandates to that effect all the way until our 1999 resolution, calling upon ‘the Governments of the world’ to recognise that women’s rights are human rights. 

Alongside these campaigns aimed at the wider world were other campaigns aimed at addressing inequities in the home and family. WI members never saw a clean split between the world of home and the world of work: for WI members those two worlds were often one and the same. This is why we campaigned for a whole range of issues that addressed domestic inequalities, such as mandating that fathers support their children borne out of marriage (1920), sex education that didn’t shame women (1922), for family allowance payments to go to the mother (1945), for funding for women’s refuges (1975), and for marital rape to be recognised under the law (1975).

Historically, we’ve recognised that inequalities in wider society could not be addressed until inequalities in the home were eradicated. Is the same true today? For our centenary we surveyed our members and found that despite much acknowledged progress, they still perceive a strong sense of inequality both in and outside of the home across generations. Gender inequality is, therefore, not an intergenerational inequity; rather it is a sad unifying factor for women, largely independent of age, geographic location, or educational level. 

Ninety-five per cent of WI members surveyed still believe that there is an expectation for women to be the primary care-giver, but 79% believe that staying home to raise children is not valued by today’s society, implying that what is considered to be ‘women’s work’ is not valued. Additionally we found that:

  • 84% believe it is difficult to balance family responsibilities with work
  • 82% believe that women are judged to different standards than men
  • 70% disagree that women are now equal to men
  • 59% agree that women are penalised in the workplace for having children
  • 83% believe we need more women in leadership positions
  • 78% agree that there are not enough positive role-models for today’s girls
  • 88% believe that traditional domestic skills are being lost

You can read our full report here: 

This widespread inequality that WI members perceive is matched up by data. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that as many as 54,000 new mothers are forced out of their jobs every year and 9% of women report that they were treated worse by their employer on their return to work than they were prior to their pregnancy. 

The causes and conditions which have historically created and sustained the gender pay gap no longer exist today. Outright pay discrimination is illegal. Rather, today’s gender pay gap is a broad-brush calculation which is symptomatic of these larger inequities in society that that WI members have identified: occupational segregation, the persistent devaluing of women’s labour and skills, confusing government policy on staying at home to raise children, a lack of women role-models in the public eye for young girls to look up to, and a lack of women in leadership positions. 

It’s clear that to close the gender pay gap we need solutions that reach into the home as much as the workplace; solutions that do what legislation alone cannot. Of course those solutions won’t be easily actualised, so to start we must encourage employers to offer well-paid, part-time and flexible working arrangements to their employees. This will benefit all employees, but it most likely will benefit mothers the most and encourage new mothers to remain in the labour pool. It will also benefit those with caring responsibilities, who are also overwhelmingly women. But most importantly, this policy will benefit all different types of families: single parent homes, dual earners with young children, those of us with ageing relatives to look after, and those of us with long or expensive commutes . 

It is only once the needs of entire families, and not only individuals, are structured into employment practices will the gender pay gap be eliminated once and for all. 

The Women’s Institute plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. This blog is by Marylyn Haines-Evans, the Vice-Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI).

*NIACE and UKCES research to mark Equal Pay Day today shows that women are losing out when it comes to workplace training.