Equal Pay: A Simple Solution to a Complex Issue?

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This week, the Women and Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, campaigned for female employees to ask their male colleagues how much they are paid, in a bid to reduce the gender pay gap in the UK.

Having these open conversations about pay between men and women in the workplace, Swinson said, will ensure employers cannot get away with paying women less than men for the same work. She warned that if the approach failed, and the gender pay gap remains, she will seek to invoke a clause within the Equality Act 2010 that would force large companies to disclose their gender pay gap. Currently, the onus is on large companies to voluntarily disclose this information if they wish.

Speaking about the issue, the Equalities Minister said ‘If we cannot make significant progress through this initiative, companies need to know that the Government is serious about closing the pay gap. I would agree the gap is not reducing enough, given that we’re 40 years on from the initial legislation to say that men and women ought to be paid equally.’

The Equal Pay Act was introduced in the UK in 1975 in line with the requirements of European law. Since then, the gender pay gap has only decreased slightly and currently stands at 14.9% according the Fawcett Society; one of the highest gender pay gaps in Europe.

These statistics certainly paint a dismal picture of gender equality in terms of pay in the UK, and I agree with Miss Swinson that the gap is not reducing enough, but I fail to see how this new initiative will contribute significantly to its reduction. In fact, I think it severely falls short of what’s needed to make any notable change to pay in the next few years.

The gender pay gap does not exist solely because women are getting paid less than men for the same work or for work of equal value, as suggested here, but because of a vast array of complex and intersecting factors. And to diminish the effects of these, would mean a huge change in the way work is divided, and ultimately the way women and men are viewed in UK society. For change in pay to take place for everyone, rather than just for some people in some organisations, we must look at the bigger picture.

In a society where the expectation remains that women will be the main provider of childcare and men will be the main or sole breadwinner, it comes as no surprise that there is a high concentration of women in part-time work as well as a generally low participation rate for women in the labour market. These facts are said to be a ‘residual effect’ of UK public policy measures in the 1960s, when women were encouraged to join the labour force, due to labour shortages, but only on the proviso that women could still fulfil their primary responsibilities at home. Part-time is often seen as the only alternative for women who are often faced with inflexible working hours, insufficient and expensive childcare, and a societal norm which dictates that childcare is their responsibility. Part-time work was seen, and continues to be seen, as a ‘trade-off’ between homemaking and employment, which has benefitted women in the short-term but caused a great deal of damage to their earnings in comparison to men the long-term.

The situation for full time female workers looks just as depressing. Currently, full-time female workers are overrepresented in low paid jobs, with more women than men concentrated in the ‘five occupational ‘c’s’ of cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work as well as teaching and healthcare professions. This is described as the ‘sticky floor’, where women struggle to move out of the bottom of the wage distribution, and where wage systems are highly dispersed, as is the case in the UK, women often suffer much larger pay penalties in comparison to men. Industry-wide agreements on regulating wages are a thing of the past, meaning that pay is increasingly determined at a manager’s prerogative in a non-unionised firm. This decentralised system of pay regulation, combined with the declining influence of trade unions, has added to women’s constant exposure to lower levels of pay.

So as we can see, equal pay is a complex issue, which deserves thorough investigation and a comprehensive set of solutions.

Miss Swinson’s threat of enforcing companies to publish their gender pay gap does little to help the matter in the long term. Whilst I believe companies should be monitoring and publishing this data, I have a great deal of sympathy with a company, which, on the advice of the Equalities Minister, has opened up discussions about pay and ensures men and women are paid equally for the same work or work of equal value, but has failed to significantly reduce their pay gap and must publish this failure, without looking at the more depth reasons, such as occupational segregation, part-time work and inadequate policies which may be the causes of their pay gap. For example, a company who is paying individually men and women equally for the same work, may actually be paying women less on a whole, if more women are concentrated within the lower paid positions of an organisation.

I believe that having open conversations is simply not enough. Indeed, having legislation in place is simply not enough. We must look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on with regards to equal pay. Unequal pay does not simply derive from employers paying women less than men, there are laws, institutions, policies and practices embedded with gender stereotypes, attitudes and supposed norms, all of which are contributing towards a society where women still get paid less than men. These must be addressed to change the culture of the UK. We need a more holistic and committed approach to equal pay, one that bolsters policies on wider gender inequalities, that aims to address the impact of labour market regulation systems, and one that seeks to change the way in which women are viewed and treated in society. This must be driven by the government, by companies and by employers – the onus should not be placed on employees to be the sole drivers of such an enormous change.

Kate Hollinshead, Director : kate@equaliteach.co.uk


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