As large organisations (with 250 staff or more) in the UK prepare to meet the mandatory 4th April 2018 deadline to publish their gender pay gap statistics (i.e. the difference in the salaries paid to their male and female employees per hour), some 500 organisations have bravely published theirs ahead of time. The trend from data submitted so far doesn’t come as a surprise: 80 % of organisations pay women less per hour on average than men.  This equates to each woman in the UK losing an average of £9,112 a year simply because of their gender, with women employees in London suffering the largest pay gap: -£15,054 (28%).

With the deluge of gender statistics around currently, it is important to note that the gender pay gap is very different to the issue of equal pay. As mentioned before, the gender pay gap is the difference between the average hourly earnings of men and women within a company. Equal pay however, under the Equality Act 2010, states that it is illegal for a company to pay people performing the same role or “work of equivalent value” differently because of their gender. So, unlike failing to adhere to equal pay, it is not illegal for a company to have a gender pay gap – provided of course that the reason behind the differences in pay is not due to gender discrimination.

Various explanations can (and have) been given for a company’s gender pay gap, including:

  • The reality that women tend to make up the majority of part-time and lower paid junior roles (eg. secretarial, receptionist and administration jobs), whilst a higher proportion of men hold senior, managerial and board level roles. This is the case across many industry sectors including law, financial services and retail. Often the differences even within a sector can be quite diverse. Within retail for example, Phase Eight reported a gender pay gap of 64.8%, and Marks and Spencer a pay gap of 12.3%.
  • The statistics that suggest that men are more confident in their skills and abilities, and are thus much more likely than women to ask for a pay rise or a promotion.
  • The unintended consequence of our statutory maternity / paternity regulation which stipulates that whilst both parents can now share the 39 weeks of leave that was previously only given to the mother, mothers receive 90% of their salaries in the first 6 weeks whilst fathers have their pay capped at £140.98 per week. It naturally makes more financial sense for the woman to be left holding the baby… quite literally!
  • Women tend to steer away from high-paying, male-dominated industries such as tech and engineering, in the often misguided belief that they don’t have the ability to succeed in these sectors.
  • Discrimination and a lack of support and flexibility in recruiting, retaining and promoting women to senior positions, particularly in “non- traditional” female industries.
  • The possibility that the gender pay gap is a product of complex social and cultural norms, including the traditional belief that women are the primary caregivers and homemakers, whilst men are the breadwinners.

It is clear from the above that the gender pay gap is a complex issue. An initial analysis of these explanations suggest that a wide variety of societal and cultural norms underpin the reasons why a gender pay gap still exists. From the overrepresentation of women in part-time and more junior roles, to the underrepresentation of women in “male” industries, we all carry basic beliefs, whether consciously or subconsciously, that affects how we perceive ourselves and the world around us and what we see as the norm. For instance, at some stage in our lives we have willingly been conditioned to believe that men are the de facto breadwinners, women are the de facto homemakers, and men are de facto suited to science, maths and tech roles.

At its core then, the gender pay gap is simply an outward manifestation of the sub-total of all our existing and deeply held belief systems. Consequently, in order to close the gender pay gap, a significant proportion of society (both men and women) need to honestly challenge our fundamental core beliefs, feel the pain of these beliefs and be dissatisfied with them, and at a hearts and minds level, buy into the need for cultural change.

We can start with tackling the following de facto assumptions and cultural beliefs:

  • That having children only benefits the woman in question and inconveniences everyone else. If for example, having children was seen as beneficial to the wider stakeholders within society then maybe businesses will be more appropriately supported and incentivised to offer flexible working options that will ensure women do not have to sacrifice higher-paid, more demanding roles for family.
  • That the ability to carry a pregnancy automatically qualifies a woman to be the primary or sole care giver any more than the ability to develop a more impressive set of muscle relegates a man to be the primary or sole bread winner.
  • That being an ambitious, career-focused individual is a desirable male trait and an undesirable female trait.
  • That the lottery of gender at birth, not ability and interest should rightly determine one’s future, opportunities, expectations and earning power.
  • That traditional gender specific roles and gender specific industries, occupations or past-times are still relevant in today’s knowledge economy.

Until we are all ready to challenge these ingrained beliefs, it is very unlikely the gender pay gap will close as the price of changing will be too disruptive and uncomfortable to the status quo which has served many in society well thus far. The organisations who have bravely published their gender pay statistics ahead of time are therefore not the problem. We and our cultural beliefs are.

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