The Gender Pay Gap Will Only Close If We Start Paying Proper Attention

It’s better to have headline figures than none at all but they aren’t the full picture, Young Women’s Trust CEO Sophie Walker writes.
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We’re never going to close the gender pay gap so long as we’re determined not to see it – and today’s data demonstrate the extent to which we have become fixated on progression towards a flawed target while still missing the point.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the pay gap between men and women in full time work in the UK has widened from 8.6% last year to 8.9% this year. It’s a depressing figure, not least because we’re looking to one shifting percentage to sum up vast inequalities.

It is undoubtedly better to have headline figures on the gender pay gap than not to have them at all. But we have to look beyond the headlines and confront the intersecting experiences of unequal pay and unpaid work that we rely on from millions of women across a range of backgrounds and experiences if we are ever to come up with an effective plan to relegate the pay gap to history.

“Pick apart the numbers, and the stark reality faced by the hundreds of thousands of women bursting with talent and ambition but who are constrained by economic injustices comes into sharp focus.”

The ONS says that the figures show there has been some progress towards equal pay. The gender pay gap among all employees fell from 17.8% in 2018 to 17.3% when including part-time work, and the rise in the full-time gender pay gap isn’t statistically significant, it asserted. The report also showed that for the under 40s, the gender pay gap for full-time employees is now close to zero.

At the Young Women’s Trust, we beg to differ. We hear every day from young women forced into low paid part-time work when they take on caring responsibilities, or from those who have no choice but to drop out of the workplace – only to be written off by Government as “economically inactive”.

“Certain groups of women, especially those from BAME groups, women with disabilities and women from working class backgrounds that are most left behind.”

Pick apart the numbers, and the stark reality faced by the hundreds of thousands of women bursting with talent and ambition but who are constrained by economic injustices comes into sharp focus.

For example, the ONS figures do not account for the fact that young women are more likely to be in part-time work, which is paid at a lower rate. For women aged 18 to 21, the median pay is £8,900 compared to £13,250 for men of the same age (for 22 to 29 year olds, women are paid a median of £20,000 compared to £24,700 for men of the same age). Living costs are the same, no matter how many hours you work, so to ignore these basic facts about how young women can support their families is misleading and damaging.

We also know something most pay gap reporting steadfastly ignores: that it is certain groups of women, especially those from BAME groups, women with disabilities and women from working class backgrounds that are most left behind.

Much-touted initiatives in recent years, including greater transparency of pay, improved childcare provision and attempts to improve parental leave simply have not been anywhere near ambitious enough to transform young women’s experiences.

As Young Women’s Trust revealed in March this year, one in three employers did not even try to reduce their gender pay gap over the previous 12 months, and one in 10 admitted that women are paid less than men at the same level – a practice that is illegal.

We have also found that young women apprentices earn 8% less than their male counterparts, leaving them more than £1,000 a year worse off. And one in five young women say they are illegally paid less than their male colleagues for the same or similar work.

Across all subjects, men earn more than women within five years of completing their degree. Male architecture or computer science graduates are earning £4,500 more a year than women who completed the same courses.

Added to this, young women are more likely to be offered zero hours contracts than young men – one in three young women had been offered this. They are more likely to be offered fewer hours than young men. They are also more likely than young men to be paid less than the minimum wage.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act next year, it is shameful that women are experiencing a growing gender pay gap. Without urgent action, today’s young women face a lifetime of unfair and unequal pay. There are immediate and practical actions that can move the dial: making flexible working a right from day one, insisting employers take responsibility for ensuring sexual harassment does not happen in their workplaces and government investment in the unpaid and unvalued care work that society continues to rely on women to do.

Government must value young women by literally making sure they all count. Young women have so much to contribute. When their skills and contributions can be fully seen and felt, everyone benefits. Equal pay is the measure of a flourishing economy and society. It means a better future for all of us.

Sophie Walker is CEO of Young Women’s Trust.