Take gender pay gap reporting with a pinch of salt

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge, tackles the gender pay gap and whether it is being portrayed correctly in the media

February 2018 heralded the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Representation of the People Act – which extended voting rights to women over the age of 30 if they met minimum property qualifications – and with it came an avalanche of debate about modern feminism with questions ranging from ‘what are today’s battles and what should they be?’ and ‘are self-professed feminists helping or harming the cause?’ to ‘what impact does gender pay gap reporting have?’.

The Big Questions on Sunday 4th February was ‘are women holding themselves back?’, and presenter Nicky Campbell introduced the topic by referencing the media coverage of women’s status and pay at the BBC; mentioning that only a fifth of the attendees at Davos (that gathering of the world’s rich and powerful elites) were female; and highlighting that at the Grammys only 17 out of 86 awards went to women. We also know that in the FTSE 100 fewer than 10 percent of CEOs are women and in parliaments worldwide women make up only 19 percent of people involved in meaningful ways. 

With larger companies now being required to publicise their gender pay gaps, I take some issue with the way these reports are being covered in the media. While we see headlines related to BBC employees earning hundreds of thousand pounds, and the number of women in the FTSE 100, we don’t tend to see as much discussion about the real reasons why there is still a discrepancy in pay and positions between the genders.

What measures are the people who are gathering and analysing the data using to apportion value – both to the nature of the roles being compared, and to the capacity of the people being compared?

What measures are the people who are gathering and analysing the data using to apportion value – both to the nature of the roles being compared, and to the capacity of the people being compared? It’s not straightforward to say that, ‘for the same job, women are being paid less than men’, as it’s so difficult to compare jobs like for like. The same is true with individuals’ previous experience or suitability for a role – can we really be sure that in all but gender, two candidates are alike enough to warrant comparison – whether for the highest earners at the BBC or men and women in more typical roles?

There are stories of inequality from a wide range of sectors and, also making the headlines in recent weeks, EasyJet announced a 52 percent gender pay gap and cut its new (male) CEO’s pay by 5 percent, so that it wouldn’t be more than the previous (female) CEO’s. EasyJet did, however, identify that their pay gap is driven by the imbalance of male and female pilots across the industry, resulting from a “deep seated view in society that being a pilot is a male job”. So once we realise that the headline statistic is based on an inherent issue in society, rather than being just an EasyJet issue, I doubt any of us would object to airline pilots being paid more than cabin crew – after all, training to become a pilot is time-consuming and expensive.

On a similar theme – of the pay gap in some instances being linked to the type of roles traditionally taken by men or women – a law firm has launched legal action on behalf of female Tesco shopfloor employees who earn less than male warehouse workers “in similar roles”. The female workers are trying to justify why their roles deserve the same rate of pay as the warehouse workers, and our gut reaction might be to dismiss the issue – after all, people who commit to a particular role also commit to the advertised rate of pay. Couldn’t they apply for a different, and differently-paid, role? But, as Paula Lee, one of the lawyers representing the Tesco shopfloor employees, explains, roles that have historically been predominantly carried out by women – jobs grouped under the five Cs (caring, cleaning, clerical, cashiering and catering) – do tend to be underpaid. Perhaps many of us have an implicit bias against these types of roles and so unconsciously assume they deserve the lower rate of pay that they traditionally receive. Otherwise why doesn’t our society pay carers more? Paula says, “It is nuanced and complex but we do need to change how we measure work and value work”.

In a similar way to how traditional views on men’s and women’s roles within a workplace or industry still impact some sectors’ gender pay gaps, traditional views on men’s and women’s roles in the home will also still be impacting some organisations’ gender pay gaps. Time away from the workplace has a knock on effect on career progression and associated pay rises, and women still tend to be the primary carers for children in the majority of UK families. As Ella Whelan from Spiked puts it, “Most women don’t care about the FTSE 100 because we’re never going to get to that position in life…The panic over extremely rich women earning varying degrees of hundreds of thousands of pounds does bypass most women, because we’re not having a genuine conversation about the lives of working class women and men.”

So while I do not take issue with women choosing to prioritise family over career (all we want is for women to have the freedom to choose) this should be taken into greater consideration when reporting on a company’s gender pay gap. We shouldn’t assume first and foremost that companies are at fault, when the employees within the company might, in actual fact, have the very roles that perfectly suit their individual family’s balancing act. Shared parental leave has provided some families with more flexibility in this respect but it is too soon to tell how much this is going to impact traditional societal views about family roles.

Of course all men are not the same and neither are all women the same; there will be women who prioritise careers over family life, just as there will be men who prioritise family life over careers. But if we are thinking about trends, then according to statistics presented by Dr Catherine Hakim on The Big Questions, these ‘careerist’ women make up about 20 percent and so to see only about 20 percent of ‘top jobs’ going to women is “not at all surprising”.

When we worry only about seeing equal representation of women in the FTSE 100, flying planes, and winning Grammys, we haven’t delved deep enough into the plight of ‘normal’ working women

So, while gender pay gap reporting forces organisations to consider whether there might be any gender bias at play, and to call it out where it does exist; and while it nudges particular industries or professions to take note of whether there is more to do to address a gender imbalance; and while it encourages society at large to consider how we value work, especially in traditionally ‘female’ roles that are often low paid – then gender pay gap reporting is an essential part of making positive progress.

But when we worry only about seeing equal representation of women in the FTSE 100, flying planes, and winning Grammys, we haven’t delved deep enough into the plight of ‘normal’ working women – or how we value the five Cs roles, whether they are taken by women or men.

Let’s support women in whatever role they pursue in fighting for equality in pay, as well as in every other aspect of their lives; but let’s also take some of these headlines with a pinch of salt, and take a more nuanced view of what is really holding feminism back today, 100 years after first getting the vote!

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