28/10/2014 12:41 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Does It Have to Be Such a Production?


I'm not sure if it's life imitating art or the other way around, but as Made in Dagenham prepares to open in London, there's a lot of song and dance about the gender pay gap.

First, Microsoft's Satya Nadella found himself having to retract comments he'd made earlier in the day in this apologetic tweet: "Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias".

Then came the more recent news that supermarket chain Asda was facing legal action from a largely female contingent alleging they were being underpaid for the same work as peers.

Now it turns out the UK has dropped out of the top 20 countries for gender equality because of wage disparities between men and women, according to World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Report.

This raises familiar questions, most obviously: why has pay inequality persisted so long beyond the 1970 Equal Pay Act?

The consensus is that it is a symptom of a deeper set of biases. Even though stereotypes linking leadership qualities to masculinity are dissolving, "research needs to examine why women are seen as equally (or more) effective leaders than men, yet are not being rewarded in the same ways," according to an American Psychological Society study.

The law can only do so much, because of the variables (qualifications, education, not to mention motherhood) that influence salary-setting. But as research demonstrates, neither education nor experience are a guard against unfair pay anyway. Childless women are as likely to be underpaid as working mothers. Most baffling of all, the gap actually widens as women move into more senior positions, where you'd expect experience to be a leveller.

Why don't women just ask for more?

Women tend to rate themselves as less effective at their jobs, according to the APS study, and can be reticent about asking for a pay rise. They often ask for and expect less, found authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. "A recent study shows that women on average ask for $7,000 less than their male counterparts when negotiating salaries," adds Ruth Reader. She argues that to focus on unequal pay is to overlook the real problems underlying it.

Some of this is pure practice: many women will be aware that they need to speak up if they want to be paid the same as male peers. But that's assuming they know about any disparity. There's a longstanding, often deliberate tradition of secrecy around pay that keeps many of us in the dark about how work is valued.

That's why Nadella's recommendation that women "have faith in the system" and expect good work to be rewarded rankled. Sitting back and waiting rarely works.

Bucking the system

Corporate cultures can perpetuate a false faith in that system, as the 'meritocratic paradox' shows. In a study by sociologists at Indiana University, participants who believed their organisation was inherently meritocratic tended to give men an average of $46 more than equally capable women. Participants who simply saw their role as one that included regular evaluations (such a annual reviews) treated men and women the same.

In other words, if people believe their company is meritocratic, they tend to become less vigilant about bias. Individual accountability becomes subsumed by corporate culture.

Opening the books

It's also traditional for businesses to promote a combative approach to pay negotiations. This can go against the grain for some of us. I know of one woman whose boss became so uncharacteristically hard-nosed during a negotiation that his subsequent agreement to her request was something of a hollow victory. She found the whole experience so jarring that she never again asked for a pay rise, even following further promotion. But she was perfectly capable of negotiating rises on behalf of her team.

Similarly, I was struck by this story of Karen Hester's early experience at Adnams, when she asked for measly £2 an hour more. Her then manager "beat her down to an extra £1 and then said she should not have relented because she was worth the extra £2. But the negotiation got her the job of transport clerk."

'That's business' would be a fair response. Both women were successful in the end, weren't they? Up to a point. Women shouldn't allow themselves to be cowed by tough tactics, and should prepare for resistance. But does it have to be such a battle? I can't help but see this aggressive approach to pay as faintly outdated in an era when transparency is considered best practice.

What would happen if companies were to become more open about what a job paid, how promotions were awarded and so on? Detractors would no doubt have plenty to argue - that it's difficult to put a definitive price on certain jobs, that skills and qualifications matter when it comes to salary decisions.

But think of the talent a company would attract if it could prove it paid everyone equally, that inclusion in the company had been achieved without tokenism.

Pay may not be the main motivator, but it's a signal of how much your work is valued. Even if there are underlying issues, isn't equal pay one of the most tangible demonstrations of a company's commitment to tackling what lies beneath?

Image: Mike Licht/Flickr, CC2.0