The recent Institute of Fiscal Studies report on pay made bleak reading. The gender pay gap which we have been talking about since the mid '50s is still as high as 30% in the UK and we are ranked 18th in the world in terms of pay equality. The report itself reflects a broad-ranging, multi-sector study, looking at the data through a number of lenses (none of which makes it any less of a disgrace).
30% is bafflingly high. It rockets up to that as soon as people start having children. Parenthood is not something which happens in a gender vacuum.
But it wasn't the 30% that stopped me in my tracks, it was the figure which was somewhat brushed over in the first report and left undiscussed in most coverage and commentary. Women early in their careers, who have not had children, who have been working for the same time as their male peers, gathering the same experience, in the same jobs, are being paid 10% less. Why was this not the headline?
It has been discussed at length what happens in terms of the pay gap post-childbirth. And there are some hypotheses worth investigating here, all of which boil down to excuses for that fact that, even in the western world of work, sexism prevails. But the 10% is especially toxic, and where I think we need to focus.
Women's achievement in higher education overtook men's somewhere in the '00s in both the UK and the US. In countless pieces of research and analysis women perform better, are more loyal and dependable and handraise for new projects and unequivocally get things done. But we pay them 10% less? We pay them 6% less almost from the outset, with even very young women in many sectors sliding behind men in equivalent hourly rates in the first few years of employment.
This suggests to me a terrifying coming together of prejudice, small-mindedness and blame.
There is no doubt that we have seen a surge of new initiatives designed to address this issue. They range from the Obama Administration's pledge which now has 28 signatories committed to changing workplace culture, to programmes in schools and colleges which aim to help women be more confident in negotiating salaries. In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is doing some brilliant work with Government, industry and individuals to tackle this issue head on.
But given it is over 45 years since the Equal Pay Act came in, it all seems to be way more complicated then it should be at this stage. We pay women less then men: we need to stop paying women less then men. As businesses we need to work with real urgency and intolerance to redress this balance now. Too many initiatives focus on the need for women to bring about the change on an individual level, and yes that can be helpful but it's simply a cop out to suggest that women just need to advocate more strongly for themselves, and that their lack of speaking up is a legitimate cause for the prejudice they experience. We should be collectively outraged about this shifting of blame. Especially in the west where we are so ready to be outraged at the treatment of women elsewhere. Prejudice does not come in shades of grey, it is an absolute.
It's no coincidence that those countries with more progressive work cultures such as Sweden and Norway make up the top of the table in terms of pay equality. There is clearly a connection between work and parenting which plays out in terms of earnings in more regressive countries (including the UK and the US). This must be addressed, having children is a huge undertaking and for some or many it changes their relationship with work - but that changing relationship should absolutely not manifest in a reduction in relative earnings. Women are no more or less brilliant than their male peers (some of which are presumably parents too) because they have had children. And the attention and fury the 30% figure sparked was perfectly legitimate and it is to be hoped leads to a renewed focus on this topic.
But it is the 10% that sends a real shudder down my spine. It must be a fact that we are somehow all complicit in a work culture that starts to shortchange women right from the start of their careers. Stopping the gender pay gap being present from the outset is the only way we will stop it from widening later.
This is a feminist issue, this is a human rights issue, and this is an economic issue. It's one that we will carry as a deep shame unless we all simply say right now, no more.