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In an effort to improve equality between women and men in the workplace the government is requiring all organisations with 250 or more ‘relevant’ employees to publish annual details of their gender pay gap.

The snapshot report will examine the mean and median gender pay gap in annual salary and bonuses and which gender receives those bonuses.

Pay inequality appears to be a relatively simple area to resolve on the surface, but the evidence says otherwise. The World Economic forum believes that it could take 170 years to eradicate disparity of pay and employment opportunities for women and men unless drastic action is taken.

Here in the UK the gap has actually widened in the past 4 years, regressing to levels experienced during the height of the financial crisis in 2008. In the past 11 years the gap has closed by only four percentage points. By requesting the publication of this information the government hopes to bring this topic into the light and open it to scrutiny and resolution.

Yet it would be wrong to argue that pay is the only gendered workplace issue. Health and Safety is another area where there is a clear and growing gap between women and men.

The argument for gender targeted health and safety advice is growing in evidence-based support. ‘Women’s work’ is traditionally under assessed and often assumed to be safer than ‘men’s work’. Not only does this mean that risks are not necessarily properly managed, it means that in too many cases, there’s no understanding or recognition of their existence.

Even seemingly benign workplace aspects such as clothing (high heels for example), environmental stresses (sitting for long periods) and work-life balance problems (child or elder care responsibilities) can disproportionally affect women.

In response to these growing concerns, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), last August, launched a toolkit targeted at managing health and safety issues specific to women.

The STUC sites workplace risks such as lifting and twisting, exposure to chemicals, stress, long working hours etc, which can all affect women more seriously than men because of physical differences and external pressures.

The STUC have provided guidance information covering areas such as:

  • domestic violence
  • sexual harassment
  • pregnant workers and new mothers
  • stress & mental health
  • the menopause and
  • cancer

The, often, ‘domestic’ nature of women’s jobs, for example cleaning or caring, warn the STUC, can be repetitive and result in ‘doubling up’ of exposure to chemicals, heavy lifting or certain physical actions.

Generalised discrimination against women can heighten the risk of safety hazards, night shifts can be more threatening, lack of understanding around menopause can create undue pressure and domestic violence can create added mental and physical strains.

Another area where the requirements of women can often be overlooked is musculoskeletal risk. The focus is generally on heavy lifting, dangerous and physical jobs usually carried out by men. Women, however, can be required to carry out repetitive tasks with fewer breaks, although on the surface these activities appear safer they can in fact lead to serious issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic motor disorders if not properly managed.

When women are working in traditionally male workplaces another set of factors need to be considered. For example the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ( HYPERLINK “https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-140” NIOSH) in the US looked at Providing Safety and Health Protection for a Diverse Construction Workforce.

They found that women faced specific practical issues such as inadequatate health and safety training, incorrectly sized protective clothing, inappropriate tool design and insufficient toilet facilities. Additionally, there were the more obvious issues such as hostile workplace cultures, sexual harassment and a lack of respected reporting systems for these issues, without fear for job security.

Organisations also need to be mindful of the pressures placed on women outside of the workplace. Working women are still generally the primary carer for children or elderly relatives, the latter being a growing concern.

According to Business in the Community (BITC) 38% of employed women have dependent children (aged 18 and under) and 43.6% of mothers (with dependent children) in employment, work full-time, while 1 in 5 women aged 45-59 is a carer.

This has significant implications for shift work, long hours and general health and wellbeing, as for many of these women, the end of the working day is the beginning of the caring role.

Whenever gender-based policies are enacted there are often concerns around creating a new set of inequalities. It is essential to consider that many of our health and safety regulations have been developed over decades when men were the primary workforce, or they have come out of industries that focus on physical requirements for safe working.

 

As our working environments, duties, gender and age balances change, it is important that our occupational health provisions keep pace…