The Gender Pay Gap Is Not A Myth - It's A Shameful Truth

05/10/2016 17:22
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I started drafting this blog after attending a day long training event on gender pay organised by my trade union and professional association the UCU (University and Colleges Union). I attended because although I felt I had a good grasp of the issues, founded in the research for my PhD on gender and race equality, as a union we are continually being fed the line that because there's equal pay there is pay equality. I have been told on several occasions that I do not understand the issues and if I did I would understand that there weren't any issues.

This bickering over whether having equal pay means that the gender pay gap is not an issue persists outside of the education sector, a quick Google of recent news reports reveal headlines like: "Gender pay gap 'does not exist' between men and women doing the same job" (The Telegraph); "The Gender Pay Gap is a Complete Myth" (Moneywatch); and my personal favourite which sadly isn't about the American Professor turned pro-wrestler who defeated her arch-nemesis in unarmed combat, "Harvard prof. takes down gender wage gap myth" (The Washington Examiner). However, what these articles are really saying is: "where men and women are doing the same job, and getting paid the same, there is no gender pay gap."

If we take the very narrow, legal definition of equal pay then in most workplaces in the UK we have equal pay. Equal pay and discrimination are the only legally actionable contributors to the gender pay gap, but the reality is that they are only minor contributing factors. Issues with progression, the devaluing of what is seen as 'women's work', labour market segregation, part-time and casualised contracts, and issues with work life balance are much bigger factors.

Those employed in HE are appointed to a point on a national pay spine and these points are clustered into grades, year-on-year an employee will progress up the pay spine until they reach the top of the grade. In HE there are many institutions where there is a pay gap in favour of women in certain grades and many employers cite this as a positive. These however are usually lower grades where women are disproportionately trapped for many years by the glass ceiling at the top of the grade whilst men are more likely to be promoted to next grade. There is no issue with equal pay as the men are doing higher grade work, however there is a clear issue with pay inequality as women are being denied the opportunities to do higher grade work. This is an issue that could be remedied with imaginative positive action schemes, but this would require a desire from the employer to address the inequalities.

Across society work that is traditionally viewed as 'women's work' is less valued, for example nurses and carers are poorly paid and often employed on exploitative contracts. The labour market is segregated in a way that means women more typically 'choose' careers that are low paid. Some argue that the problem is that women choose these types of low paid work or that structural biases route women towards low-paid work, however the reality is that employers have a choice about how they value different attributes and they are choosing to pay less for work predominantly undertaken by women. Again, this is something that could be remedied if the weightings given to different competences when grading roles were re-evaluated.

Nationally 41% of women workers whilst only 11% of men are employed part-time and part-time employees are on average paid proportionately less than full-time employees. That some women choose work part-time is undeniable but for many this isn't a genuine choice. Because statistically women are more likely to have caring responsibilities than men, where an employer doesn't facilitate a decent work life balance then women are often denied the choice of full-time work. However, many women without caring responsibilities are trapped in part-time work because many of us assume that this must be by choice. Many women choose not to have children yet because many others do when the former are trapped in part-time roles these statistics are explained away. Introducing flexible working practices would disproportionately advantage women, remedying historical disadvantage, and I can't think of a job that could not be shared. Normalising flexible working with all jobs advertised with the possibility of job share seems like common sense and family friendly policies like on-site childcare would not only directly help female employees but would also allow men to take a fairer share of what is too often left for women to do, freeing them to pursue their ambitions, which may extend beyond cooking, cleaning and childcare.

I do wonder what if there was no gender pay gap, would the expectation still fall on women to take breaks from their careers to care for children or older relatives? Giving up the lower salary is the sensible option but think of what a difference it would make if the lower salary wasn't usually the women's salary.

So this is a whistle stop tour of some of the issues I have a grasp of when it comes to the gender pay gap and some constrictive suggestions as to how to start remedying it. Perhaps I understand a little more than I'm sometimes given credit for.