There is nothing obviously noteworthy about 10 November. It’s typically a cold, grey day, perhaps with a stiff breeze or a light smattering of drizzle. It’s also the day when women effectively stop earning for the year relative to men due to the gender pay gap.
There is simply no getting away from the fact that, at the moment, most women’s incomes are hit by having children. When I was a new mum, I felt lucky simply to have a job and luckier still to have a supportive employer who allowed me to work flexibly. But this feeling of gratitude meant there’s no way I would have negotiated for a pay rise or a higher bonus. In my experience, while motherhood is a precious gift, it offers you precious little bargaining power in the workplace.
Research suggests women are significantly less likely to negotiate for a higher salary and, even when they try, they are less likely to be successful. This contributes to the gender pay gap. That gap - the difference in average earnings between men and women - remains a stubborn fact of life especially for women over forty. Hence we have Equal Pay Day, marking the point when women effectively work the last few weeks of the year for free.
Last year the government made it mandatory for companies with 250 employees or more to report their gender pay gap. That might not sound such a big deal, but it was actually a really important step towards tackling this inequality. It means that a bunch of UK companies are now looking really hard at what they can do to close the gap.
Helping women reach their full potential isn’t just the right thing to do, but also makes good economic sense. For companies, promoting gender equality not only increases retention rates and boosts staff productivity, it also improves a brand’s reputation and attracts better candidates. And it makes economic sense for the whole country; if we fail to make the most of the capabilities of women, we are failing to make the most of half the country’s workforce.
Now all large employers are publishing their gender pay gap data, the government has called on smaller firms to do the same. Transparency is absolutely crucial to eliminating the gender pay gap; by requiring companies to focus on these figures we have created a much greater awareness of the problem and, in turn, a commitment to action.
Making things better for women often has knock-on benefits for men, too. Figures indicate there is no gender pay gap between young, single, childless men and women with the same jobs and experience; the gap only kicks in after the age of 30 - around the average age women have their first child. So while women take on the bulk of childcare and see their careers and incomes suffer, men pursue pay rises and promotions and miss out on time with their children.
I know lots of dads who wish they had been able to spend more time with their children in the early years. Shared Parental Leave was introduced by the Conservative-led government in 2014, to enable dads to do exactly that and even out the impact of having children on both parents’ careers. But in practice there are many barriers to men taking this up, and there’s more to do to make it work.
Flexible working made a huge difference for me and we know it helps many mums stay in work (and helps dads do their share). At the moment you can ask your employer to consider whether your job could be done flexibly. Now the government is considering placing the onus on companies to take the initiative, so employers would have to assess whether a job could be done flexibly and make that clear when advertising it. Another proposal under consideration is to require large employers to publish their parental leave and pay policies.
The gender pay gap is smaller than ever before - but that doesn’t mean the battle is won. There’s still a way to go, including much to do to change company cultures, shift society’s expectations of men and women, and break down the barriers that prevent women getting many of the top jobs. I’m looking forward to the day we eliminate the gender pay gap – and November 10 can return to insignificance.
Helen Whately is the Conservative MP for Faversham & Mid Kent