The results are in, and the UK can officially confirm, to no-one’s surprise, that the gender pay gap exists. What is less clear is where we go from here.
Public sector statistics were collected earlier, and private sector companies with more than 250 employees had to file their data by midnight on the 5th April. This isn’t a complete audit of pay as it doesn’t include smaller companies, but it does paint a rather damning picture: The Guardian notes that “about 78% of companies report a median-wage disparity in favour of men”. You can check out their analysis graphics here.
This shouldn’t be an issue of equal pay; the Equal Pay Act dates back to 1970, and stipulated that men and women should be paid the same rate for the same work. Although there are certainly areas where this is not adhered to, either overtly or covertly, the main issue behind this goes much deeper, and points to broader cultural issues.
It’s not just down to maternity leave
Maternity leave is an issue, and it’s certainly trotted out as a standard answer when looking at gender pay gaps over time. ‘Of course women will be paid less if they take career breaks.’ Maternity leave doesn’t only have an immediate impact on salary; it can unofficially blacklist women in terms of promotions, it has an impact on pensions and if women want to work flexible hours afterwards, both of these issues will be exacerbated. We can say #NotAllFamilies if we want to, but there are still assumptions that women should sacrifice their careers if they want to start a family, that female careers are expendable, that men are ‘breadwinners’ and that higher responsibility roles cannot be performed in a flexible way. Working mothers are more likely to work part-time, and many workplaces do not value part-time contributions. Some workplaces openly state that promotions are incompatible with part-time hours, thus excluding working mothers. Working long hours is seen as a marker of commitment and dedication; what happens if we frame it as inefficiency instead? Or if employers see that some workloads are impossible?
“Tackling the pay gap isn’t just about ensuring that access to shared leave, flexible working and job sharing is standard and used by both parents. It’s also about employers and their responsibilities when it comes to recruiting, retaining, and promoting women in the first place. Responsibilities that, if ignored, manifest themselves in pay.” (From The Guardian)
Men are more likely to be in charge
Board rooms are still dominated by men. Men are more likely to be promoted within companies, and there are myriad reasons for this. Unconscious bias plays a significant role, though let’s not kid ourselves that there is no such thing as conscious bias at play here too. There has long been discrimination against women of childbearing age, and of menopausal age. ‘Don’t promote them, they’re flaky. They don’t care. They won’t give the job 110%.’ There are disparaging assumptions made about female leadership skills. (Hillary Clinton can tell us all about that one.) An imbalance in the board room is clearly reflected in gender pay gap data.
Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man
It might not be just that men are getting promoted over women. Part of the issue might be that women are not going for promotions in the first place. Lack of confidence and assertiveness may have led to fewer women putting themselves forward for more executive roles. Is female ambition nurtured and mentored the same way that male ambition is? Or are we just stuck with the old clichés about ‘bossy’ women and ‘managerial’ men?
The holy grail of work/life balance
Something I’ve found anecdotally with women my age is that maybe we’re not all that interested in promotions in the first place. For some, the work/life balance issue is related to raising a family — a reluctance to take on more work in order to balance the roles of worker and parent. This might be because domestic duties typically fall to women, and that’s something that socially, we still need to work on. But this doesn’t account for all of it either. I’ve found that women my age don’t tend to measure their success on how high they have climbed a career ladder. ‘Getting along fine’ and ‘being less stressed’ are perfectly acceptable ambitions to have. Perhaps promotions are status symbols for some, but they aren’t for everyone. It’s not too big a stretch to see that there are gendered trends for this too; do men traditionally want a fancy title, and are women more likely to give way to others? Perhaps one interpretation of the data might be that women are more likely to seek the work/life balance. Whether women find that holy grail or not is another matter. Wait, is that why we live longer?
The complex nature of ‘women on top’ in business shouldn’t gloss over some other troubling (and yet still unsurprising) data, though.
Some professions are still perceived as gendered
Ryanair’s data shows that the “median hourly pay for women employed by the airline is 71.8% lower than for men.” The airline argues that this data is skewed because it compares pilots (mostly male) to flight attendants (mostly female), as if this fixes or excuses anything. What this shows us is that we need to do more to prevent roles like pilots and flight attendants from nonsensical gendering. Comparing roles in an airline is interesting because it cuts through some of the other arguments that arise during a discussion of the gender pay gap, i.e. that men can work longer and more antisocial hours because they are not primary care givers in the home. Pilots and flight attendants are on the same flights, after all. They work the same hours.
Once professions are split on gender terms, it then becomes clear that ‘masculine’ work is valued more highly than ‘feminine’ work. And if a profession is seen as gendered, it can be hard to encourage other people to pursue it in the first place, thus creating a vicious cycle.
Some ‘progress’ takes us a step backwards
Ah, the education sector. On the surface, this is a sector where there really shouldn’t be an issue. I mean, there shouldn’t be an issue anywhere, but you certainly wouldn’t expect to see a gender pay gap where there are nationally agreed pay scales. But as more and more schools are being effectively privatised, turning into academies run by trusts, then we start to see some difference. Those trusts need executives and consultants and all sorts of gubbins. They can pay these executives whatever they want. And to no-one’s surprise: the majority of those are men. So even in a sector dominated by female graduates, with nationally agreed scales showing equal pay for equal work, there is an average median pay gap of 20%.
We need to have open conversations about pay
There is a typical British squeamishness about discussing money, which has not helped at all. Let’s look at Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown. Neither actor realised that Smith was getting paid more for his work than Foy was for hers. Now, we can argue about how this happened; we can blame agents, we can consider relative fame, we can argue issues of billing, but when a woman playing the title character is paid less than a supporting actor, and that title character is the freaking Queen, it’s pretty clear we have a problem. These conversations will be uncomfortable, but a little discomfort is a small price to pay for fairness.
We need this data to be intersectional
Here’s something we know about the gender pay gap data in the US:
“Women in the US typically earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts for full-time work. And the pay gap for women of colour is even more striking. Black women typically only make 63 cents for every dollar paid to their white male counterparts, and Latina women only make 54 cents on average.” (From The Guardian)
The UK’s mandatory reporting on gender and pay is unprecedented in its detail in one respect, but we can do better. If we want a thorough picture, we need to look at race. We also need to look at social class and disabilities. I want to see the data broken down to reflect these too.
Collecting the data is a massive step in the right direction. It tells us about a woman’s worth in the UK. It confirms what many of us suspected. It doesn’t give us a way forward; that’s something we still have to figure out. But it means that employers can’t bury their heads in the sand any more. And that is a kind of progress.