Tip-Toe to Gender Equality? No Thanks

The slow creep toward change is standard operating procedure now whenever we discuss gender equality, the author writes, as is the presentation of gender inequality as something that’s really hard to fix. It’s time to do things differently, she writes. Above, people carry bags reading "equal pay day" during a protest in Bern, Switzerland in March 2015. Ruben Sprich/Reuters

There's another conversation about equal pay happening today. So the government has produced another proposal to sort it all out. What's the plan? Well...we wait a bit first, so that everyone can get used to the idea, and then we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

This slow creep toward change is standard operating procedure now whenever we discuss gender equality, as is the presentation of gender inequality as something that's really hard to fix.

It's time to do things differently.

Look around you. Markets are tumbling, traders are clutching their heads, gloomy analysts lack confidence in global economic growth. And still we are discussing equal opportunity for women as though it is something entirely separate to all this—rather than a huge, untapped resource.

I'm glad the presence of the Women's Equality Party (WE) on the British political scene has prompted the other parties to think more about fairness. But with $28 trillion up for grabs—the total that we could add to the global economy by 2025 by narrowing the gender gap at work, according to McKinsey—it's really time to stop fiddling about on the edges of policy and to do this properly.

Nicky Morgan has suggested a gender pay league table in 2018 that shows the average pay and bonus gap in British companies. Why wait two years to see just a little bit of what's going on? The Women's Equality Party has a clear plan that requires immediate action from companies to show full transparency on pay, status, and hours worked—plus retention before and after parental leave—and to break that data down not only by gender but also by ethnicity and disability.

Similarly, the government's aim to have 15,000 more girls studying maths and sciences by 2020—an extra 3,750 girls a year—is a disappointingly limited approach. Girls already outnumber and outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE level, and their results are significantly better at A-level too. If we want to fix the occupational segregation under which more men are in higher-paid science and technology jobs, then we need action to get girls into those jobs. There are five million STEM jobs across the U.K., so there's no shortage of choice. Yet even during the economic downturn, 43% of U.K. STEM employers couldn't find enough people to fill their vacancies.

And why stop there? Fixing unequal pay means taking a bold and comprehensive approach and sorting out the gender pay gap more broadly. It means companies giving equal parenting leave to men and women so that childcare responsibilities are shared equally and women don't end up taking low-paid, part-time work as the primary carers. It means establishing new, imaginative ways of working across the country—more flexible working for example, so that women aren't trapped at home unable to afford to work. And it means stronger anti-discrimination processes.

We've got to stop talking about equal pay for women as though it will mean raiding the piggy bank and giving less to everyone else. (Like the argument I hear often regarding equality for women: "Haven't you got enough? What about everyone else?") Establishing equal pay for women means putting in place a structure that will make British business better and more productive—for everyone. Meanwhile, the businesses that understand this first will benefit first.

We're firing the starting gun. Race you to the top.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.