It was not long ago that the UK Government pushed through legislation which required large companies to share their mean and median gender pay gaps.
Framed as a way to further the battle against gender equality in British workplaces, it is a copy-cat piece of legislation taken from the Australian Government – who made the same move in order to tackle gender discrimination in its own workforce. As it currently stands, early reports from some large firms have revealed pay gaps of around twice the national average.
However, reports released recently have suggested that a mere seven UK companies have submitted their gender pay gap reports.
Forcing companies to report on this issue– especially when it reveals damaging information like 36 per cent pay gaps – is a very positive move in terms of equalising the pay men and women are awarded by their respective organisations. However, it might not achieve gender equality in the way it was envisioned that it would.
After all, although the legislation does stipulate that companies must publish this information, it has not required that any organisations do anything about the gaps they reveal. So whist transparency has improved the accountability for most large companies, the approach to changing the status quo is the same.
What does this all mean in relation to fighting for equality? Realistically, not much has changed in terms of the pathway to parity. The responsibility still lies with the employee when it comes to gaining momentum, rather than with the employer. It will be down to male and female employees alike to examine these reports and what they reveal about their various organisations: taking on companies which are clearly awarding pay by gender and fighting for changes to be made. If no-one takes action as this data is revealed, organisations are likely to continue to do nothing about achieving monetary equality.
Still, the issue at hand is not just about employees themselves taking on organisations about pay gaps. The bigger picture must be examined, too.
Statistics which come out of these types of reports can sometimes be misleading – and these kind of smoke and mirrors tricks can irritate those they are propagated to, thus hindering the efforts campaigners are making when it comes to gender parity.
We saw this recently in an Independent article which reported that millennial women are automatically earning 11.5 per cent less than their male counterparts from the moment they leave University. This horrifying revelation was billed as a way to shed new light on the gender pay gap, which we had previously thought was largely down to middle age and motherhood.
However, the gap in this instance was found to be largely down to the subjects students chose to study: a type of “occupational sorting” was found to be occurring. Women ended up in industries with lower pay whilst men tended to move towards industries with higher pay, and this in turn was attributed to their chosen degrees. This resulted in an average pay gap of 11.5 per cent between the two genders.
Although there was some recognition of inter-industry disparity, the focus remained on the bigger picture rather than role-to-role comparison, which would bring far more light to the issue than sweeping averages and common conclusions about women’s lack of presence in STEM subjects and jobs.
This is where analysing something as controversial and complex as the gender pay gap becomes a delicate issue. Comparing the pay of people who work in very different industries is an extremely unfair way of examining the pay gap as it is a direct comparison of extremely different roles and skillsets.
Whilst this is not to say that gender defines the kind of role you can take on, it does show that cross industry analysis will leave some large gaps in our knowledge and send us in the wrong direction when it comes to seeking solutions.
For example, the issue highlighted by The Independent was not in fact anything to do with pay – it was the shepherding of women and men into stereotyped roles which often sees men being directed towards the more “difficult” STEM subjects and women being directed to more “caring” and “emotional” subjects such as nursing or English literature.
Progression towards gender parity is a long and slow battle, we know that already. For us to really move things forward, we must now try and move out of the stage of simply reporting and observing. Examining the differences between male and female salaries is an excellent place to start. However, we must begin to develop a contextual understanding which helps us to combat the roots of gender inequality – rather than the symptoms which are resultant of them.
About the author
Professor Binna Kandola OBE is a diversity expert and founder of business psychologists Pearn Kandola. He has written extensively about gender in the work place, and seeks to tackle unconscious bias in the business world.