THE BLOG

Two Cheers For Publishing The Pay Gap. Now It's The Government's Turn To Fill It In

06/04/2017 09:01 BST | Updated 06/04/2017 09:02 BST
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Today sees the introduction of new rules insisting that companies publish the gap between what they pay men and women. This has been a long time coming, but it's not just the wait that's making me feel a bit deflated. Publishing data that merely confirms the size of the pay gap without coming up with solutions to close it does not just leave the job unfinished - it risks confirming the half-baked ideas and prejudices that we have to overcome if women are to get a fair deal in the workplace.

Starting any discussion about equal pay inevitably invites assertions that women earn less because they choose to work less and take unchallenging jobs. Explanations for this will range from the fact that women don't work on construction sites or oil rigs, to their stubborn predilection for having children - also referred to as a "lifestyle choice" by proponents of this mythology. It's not hard to counter this nonsense and it's not hard to come up with solutions. But doing so requires the political will to understand and respond to women's inequality. And that's a lot harder than telling businesses it's all their fault.

Don't get me wrong - I am pleased with today's progression. Transparency can only ever be a helpful tool in tackling discrimination. It is good that the new rules require companies with 250 or more employees to report data about their gender pay gap, including the proportion of male and female employees in different pay bands, and information on bonus payments. It would have been even better to set more rigorous benchmarks. The Women's Equality Party would also require companies to show retention rates before and after maternity leave, and publish pay data broken down by age, ethnicity and disability, as well as gender. WE would also extend this to businesses with more than 50 employees within three years. Because only when you look at the intersections of discrimination can you begin to tackle the fact that, for example, disabled women experience a 22% pay gap. Or that black and white graduates experience a 23% difference in hourly pay.

The reason we never tackle the complexity of the pay gap is the reason we never tackle the true source of the pay gap - too many politicians think that gender equality is something to be fixed with sporadic legislative interventions rather than a consistent, end-to-end approach that sees the structural barriers in front of women in all of their diversity at all stages of their life.

The truth is that women earn less for three reasons, only one of which is overt sexism in the workplace. This will partly be resolved by pay transparency but should also be tackled by, for example, lifting the cost of employment tribunals and allowing women to bring cases of double discrimination where they have suffered racism or disability or age discrimination on top of sexism. The next reason women earn less is because our education and training systems still encourage them into jobs deemed suitable for their sex that are consequently lower-paid; while young men are encouraged into engineering, construction and science careers, young women are streamed into caring, catering, clerical work that is filed under 'second class.' We need equal education across all subjects by teachers that see children as individuals instead of gender stereotypes; we need diverse role models in the curriculum and we need equal apprenticeships schemes that pay young men and women equally and give them equal access to jobs, be they bricklaying or hairdressing.

The third reason that women earn less is because they care more. Whether providing childcare or supporting elderly relatives, we expect women to do this work and do it for free. The Labour Force Survey's characterisation of carers as 'economically inactive' is a travesty. The pay gap will disappear when we invest in the social infrastructure of this country and thereby value care sufficiently that men can cast off cultural shackles and 'breadwinner' duties to do it too.

It's time for government to put its money where its mouth is. Telling businesses to tackle the pay gap is all well and good, but until investment banks and retailers offer equal employment to men and women who share care equally for their families, exercises in publishing pay will show only the size of the job that successive governments repeatedly leave undone.