Today is the 39th international women's day since the equal pay act formally came into UK law. A lot has changed since then. Social attitudes are different, and the ugly prejudices of 40 years ago have receded. But despite now forming the majority of graduates, the glass ceiling for women still exists – cracked but not broken – and the predominance of women in low pay remains.
The UK has the sixth worst gender pay gap in the EU: this is a blight on our economy and an affront to fairness. Overcoming this is one of the most inspiring challenges politicians face. As MEPs go into a new parliament in 2014, we need to approach the issue of women's pay with renewed vigour, but also with an open enough mind to diagnose where the issues now lie – and how they've changed.
Part of the problem is the reasons for inequalities have become less tangible. These days most employers are signed up – in word if not always in deed – to equal pay. Whereas in the 1970s there was a widespread belief that women weren't up to it, modern workplaces have professionalised, and most are committed to diversity. The issues are now subtler; inaction and the 'bottom line' have replaced overt discrimination. We need solutions which recognise this.
" As a recent study by Trevor Phillips pointed out, women remain spectacularly under-represented at executive level. The same is true in politics, where MPs are 80 per cent male"
In my view there are three areas where change is needed. First, we need to create room at the top. As a recent study by Trevor Phillips pointed out, women remain spectacularly under-represented at executive level. The same is true in politics, where MPs are 80 per cent male. This creates a vicious circle; with too few women are in positions to influence change, the odds remain stacked against them and nothing gets done. To break this cycle we need proactive measures like all-women shortlists and boardroom quotas.
Second, we need relief at the bottom. Women make up nearly two thirds of those not paid a living wage, and three quarters of those doing part-time work – which is worse paid. They are more likely to be unemployed or under-employed. This doesn't get the attention that a topic like women on boards does, but it's every bit as important. We must focus on education, so that women aren't channelled into the worse paid sectors. But we must also tackle all low pay; the more we help those on subsistence wages the more we help women.
Third, we need parenthood that pays. Because the workplace doesn't offer many alternatives, women who have children tend to 'de-skill' or temporarily drop out of employment. It's for this reason that long-term unemployment is now widespread among women aged 50-64. Quality flexible and part-time work is still too hard to come by, and childcare and maternity provisions still aren't good enough. Improving the UK's statutory maternity leave – currently the worst anywhere in Europe – would be a start.
As an MEP, I want to see the UK step up to these challenges – not by addressing them in splendid isolation, but by working with other countries to establish consensus. This is why I've been so keen on justice commissioner Viviane Reding's proposed 40 per cent EU-wide quota for women on boards, and it's why I was delighted to see the European parliament resolve, in late 2013, to eliminate the gender pay gap by 2020. By cooperating with and learning from our neighbours we can lift standards for working women everywhere.