Girls face career handicap

8th September 2000 at 01:00
The headlines in recent weeks have focused on boys' underachievement. But women still lose out at work, writes Jon Slater.

ALL the talk of recent weeks has been of boys' underachievement. But while girls may top the class at school they are still likely to find themselves jobless, poorly paid or working for a man when they join the labour market.

The figures speak for themselves. Only 3 per cent of company directors are women, female salaries are, on average, pound;7,000 a year lower than for men and 3 million fewer women have jobs.

No surprise then, that the furore over boys' relatively poor performance of school has angered many feminists.

"All the evidence of what happens to the majority of women, in spite of their superior qualifications, is that men still rule OK, while female talent goes to waste," journalist Yvonne Roberts wrote recently.

However, there is no doubt that women's position in the workplace has improved. Although men are still more likely to be employed than women, more than two-thirds of women now work compared to fewer than half in 1960. Maternity leave is a right, and has been joined by unpaid parental leave for men and women.

But many jobs done by women remain part-time or poorly paid. Moement movement towards equal pay has been slow. The gap between male and female salaries has narrowed by just eight percentage points since 1980. Last year women earned an average 30 per cent less than men.

One reason, according to a report last month by the Industrial Society, is that, because of maternity rights and their role as carers, companies view women as being more expensive. It argues that for equality at work to become a reality, men need to be given similar benefits so that employers stop seeing them as a cheaper option. Others cite the macho or "jobs for the boys" culture in many firms. Indeed, one reader wrote to the Guardian last month to claim that it is "far better for his long-term future that a lad leaves school with moderate A-levels and a single-figure golf handicap".

He could be right. A recent survey found that more than half of personal assistants have better qualifications than their bosses - although it did not include details on putting strokes.

The question now is whether, as the educational gender gap continues, business can continue to ignore girls' improved performance at school. If they decide they can't then today's underachieving boys will really have something to worry about.

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