Ladies and gentlemen, we have found the people responsible for the gender pay gap: please step forward (nearly) every UK company chief executive.
The sickly drip of discriminatory data that we’ve seen for months reaches a nauseous climax at midnight tonight: the deadline for pay gap reporting after which every organisation with more than 250 employees will be listed on the government’s website - their sexism in the spotlight for all to see.
So roll up, roll up. Make sure you have a ringside seat and tomatoes to throw. For they make such easy villains, these captains of industry. These white, middle-aged men who say things like: Our 64.8% pay gap is simply because women prefer to work on the shop floor instead of in the senior jobs at Head Office. (Take a bow, Benjamin Barnett, of Phase Eight.) Or, in response to a 67 percent bonus gap at Goldman Sachs: The bank is a “meritocracy” that promotes people regardless of gender. (Drumroll, Lloyd Blankfein.) Or the truly marvellous feat by Hugo Boss to declare no pay gap at all, then to submit a figure of 76.5%, and then to change that to 4.7%. Now you see it, now you don’t!
It’s been a bleakly entertaining exercise so far. And there will be more fun to come, watching the frantic PR of pay gap pariahs. Expect many, many new mentoring schemes to help all those women who just can’t seem to get ahead. Training projects for the ladies who can’t seem to get that pay rise no matter how hard they ask. Resilience sessions to help new trainees bear up better under the strain of being female.
Such lame, knee-jerk responses are starting to be seen for what they are. Closing the pay gap is not about fixing the women but about confronting bias and sexism in the workplace. This exercise has been crucial in forcing companies to face up to the real reasons behind workplace inequality.
But it’s equally trite to suggest that fixing the pay gap only means fixing the companies. This government has done a good job of casting the blame on them while disregarding its own part in women’s economic disempowerment.
Pay inequality doesn’t just happen because the men at the top of the pile prefer to hire and promote people who look and sound like them. It happens because our education system still segregates our children by occupation, encouraging boys to believe they are natural leaders and scientists and girls to think they are hard-wired to be carers and supporters. It happens because as a society we don’t value or invest in care but expect women and girls to do it for free behind the scenes.
Successive governments of all parties have presented election manifestos that classify construction (men’s jobs) as investment and care (women’s jobs) as an expense. The scale of the pay gap reflects years of this myopic policy-making, which is now also being seen in the disaster that is this country’s childcare system - the most expensive in the world and driving women out of work daily. Just last month a report by Save the Children found almost half of stay-at-home mums in the UK - 870,000 - would return to the workplace if they could arrange convenient, reliable and affordable childcare places. Also in March a Treasury Select Committee report found the government’s free childcare funding figures were misleading - leaving providers incurring more costs than received funding, while parents struggle to access the scheme. And the government’s shared parental leave policy, which limits fathers’ paternity pay to an average of two weeks at £145 a week, makes this so-called choice no choice at all in the majority of households that - because of the pay gap - depend on men’s higher pay.
Business leaders look clownish right now. But the political parties beating them over the head look cynical, having for so long relegated care to the back of the manifesto with a ‘when we get round to it/nice to have/one for the ladies’ subtext.’
The Women’s Equality Party formed to give voters an alternative based on feminist economics, promising equal investment in care and understanding it is vital infrastructure. Business lobbies hard for the infrastructure it needs. What it needs now is state-funded childcare.
Sophie Walker is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party