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Our priority is fair pay

Women in FE have markedly poorer prospects than men. This must change, says Sally Hunt

Women are the backbone of the working population. Take away their contribution in the further education sector and it would fall flat on its face. Yet here, as elsewhere, they are often taken for granted and treated as second-class citizens when it comes to pay, professionalism and promotion.

In 2005, the Government's own survey revealed that female full-time teaching professionals in further education earned 13 per cent less than male teachers. The gap is beginning to narrow - down from 15 per cent in 2002 to 9 per cent in 2004 - but progress is painfully slow and this is having long-term consequences for the financial security of any woman who wants to work in the sector.

There is an urgent need to tackle the discrimination in both further and higher education. The Women and Work Commission report, published this week, could have been the opportunity to do just that. Its recommendations should be welcomed, but the Government, employers and unions have a duty to go much further. We need quick, effective action to help women currently at work, not just their daughters or granddaughters.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud any steps towards justice in women's pay packets, but I feel that the recommendations alone are unlikely to bring about pay equality in the near future.

I am extremely disappointed that the report did not call for statutory pay audits. Without them, employers are able to avoid the single most effective tool to highlight and, crucially, address pay inequality. The fact that the Confederation of British Industry has argued so vigorously against this approach gives us a clue as to how much it would help.

I think employers should be legally forced to carry out regular reviews on a regular basis, publish the results and report on their progress, with financial penalties for institutions that do not.

Pay is not the only area where the conditions for women in FE leave a lot to be desired. There is clear evidence of an inverse relationship between gender and seniority where the higher up the career ladder you go, the more likely you are to be a man.

Men comprise just 37 per cent of the sector's workforce, yet 44 per cent of college managers and 73 per cent of principals are men. Why is this? Are they cleverer, more driven or committed? No offence, but that hasn't always been my experience. To me it looks like discrimination based simply on gender.

We need to review the way senior posts are constructed, how a college recognises talent and potential, and how it is rewarded. We must make the whole process transparent, subject to collective work agreements and enforceable. No individual can fight that battle on their own. We must all face up to some hard truths.

Although they outnumber men, nearly two-thirds of women in further education work part-time, compared with less than half of men. Among teaching staff, 69 per cent of women work part-time, compared with 54 per cent of men. For many women, working part-time, often on an hourly paid basis, is the only option on offer to them.

Employers that talk equality should have a policy on part-time and fixed-term employees with a commitment to equality of pay and terms and conditions. I believe they must also set out clear guidelines in areas such as development, support and training - which are crucial for people seeking promotion. In short we want parity for pay and parity of opportunity.

AUT and Natfhe, the lecturers' union, will merge on June 1 to form a new union representing staff in further and higher education - the University and College Union (UCU). I will be joint general secretary of that union and I give college and university heads notice now that campaigning for equality of pay and conditions for all members will remain our top priority. Fair pay, for all, today.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the AUT

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