It’s been over a year since the BBC revealed that its male employees earned, on average, 9% more than their female colleagues, sparking a debate that continues to rage just as passionately today as it did a year ago. In this time, the media has been awash with high profile businessmen and women, politicians and Hollywood film stars speaking out to raise awareness and pledging to combat the injustice of the gender pay gap.
And it’s a debate which needs to happen. The fact that in the vast majority of industries and professions, women receive lower pay than men is a deeply rooted issue and the narrative that it’s no longer acceptable for women to receive lower pay has snowballed.
But what progress has actually been made since the gender pay gap was dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight? Can we breathe a sigh of relief, comfortable in the knowledge that things are improving?
The first sign of real change came when employers with 250 or more workers were mandated by the government to reveal their individual gender pay discrepancies. The initiative yielded an average pay gap of 9.8%, though this figure is reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to have now reached a record low of 8.6% among full-time workers.
This certainly sounds like progress. Indeed, having lit the fuse on this debate, the BBC announced in July that it had reduced its pay gap from 9.3% to 8.4%. The movement has even gained such traction that the prime minister is considering having the same businesses also reveal the difference between the pay of their white and ethnic minority employees; an issue which is just as severe but is often overlooked.
But while we’ve taken our first steps towards change, it still feels as though there are many miles yet for us to walk.
For one thing, of the 322 gender pay gap submissions made between 1st April and 15th October, around a quarter have not conformed with the government’s guidelines. At best, this suggests that the data we now have is inaccurate. The worst-case scenario, however, is that some companies may be purposefully misrepresenting their results in order to lessen the severity of their pay gap.
Not a promising start.
Likewise, while we are celebrating the fact that the gender pay gap has been significantly reduced among younger workers, I recently read a shocking headline that suggested in some cases, men are retiring with pensions five times the size of their female colleagues.
So, what can be done to help bring about genuine change?
It’s believed that one of the key contributors to the gender pay gap is the increased responsibility that women shoulder for childcare, with two-thirds of women returning to work part-time after having a child and earning 30% less than full-time working women. Employers can tackle this particular issue by helping and actively encouraging more new mothers to return to work, and indeed, by encouraging men who would like to play a more active role in childcare to do so.
We also need to see more women in the boardroom. A significant contributor to the gender pay gap is the fact that too few women achieve the highest-ranking positions, which are, in most cases, the highest-paying. Indeed, a study released earlier this year claimed that there are more FTSE 100 companies led by men called David or Steve than there are those led by women or ethnic minorities.
A significant part of this problem is the unconscious belief held by members of both sexes that women are less qualified for leadership than men. This belief stems, in part, from the qualities that we associate with leadership being more commonly expected of men than they are women. On an impulsive level, men are expected to be assertive and rational, while women are expected to be caring and sensitive. In reality, however, female leaders have been shown to function more effectively in leadership roles, putting more stock in relationships, communicating more effectively and better integrating their personal and work lives.
If the gender pay gap is going to be tackled once and for all, it’s our perceptions of gender roles in the workplace that must change. We must stop associating men with leadership and women with caregiving, and we must create workplaces in which women can take action.
According to research released by The Fawcett Society on Equal Pay day, the date from which women effectively “work for free” for the remainder of the year, 52% of workers believe their managers would respond negatively to more openness about wages. The same survey found that one in three employees don’t even know that it’s illegal for women to be paid less than men to do the same work.
There can be no doubt that change is happening. The very fact that this discussion is taking place is indicative of that. The bottom line though, is that we still have a lot of ground to cover.