The Gender Pay Gap – Time to Get Flexible

money featuredClare Forestier’s blog asks if the gender pay gap is a feminist myth or very real pay discrimination, and could flexible working resolve it?

Talking about love, life and feelings, i.e., our sex lives, is fairly common at work – No? Well, maybe it’s just my office. However despite open and entertaining chats about most things, nobody ever talks honestly about their salaries (even at some of the work socials where, it seems some of my colleagues are pretty liberated in every other way).

Difficult to talk about at work but the gap between men and women’s pay is certainly an issue, with first world governments promising to stamp it out. The White House claims, “Pay discrimination is a real and persistent problem that continues to short change American women and their families.” President Obama says of the wage gap: “It’s not a myth; it’s math.” He last year signed a Presidential Memorandum requiring federal contractors to submit data on employee compensation by race and gender.

In 2016 the UK Government will be enforcing laws to ensure all companies, with more than 250 employees, publish the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees.

Official figures about global wages vary, but the EU Commission estimates more than a 16% average difference in the wages of men and women across the EU. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s more up-to-date figures suggest 17.9% in the US and 17.4% in the UK. Most figures quoted online suggest around 20% is the average difference – so that’s what I’ll use for the purposes of this blog.

That appears a pretty hefty discrepancy … I moderate virtual business roundtables for Meet The Boss TV, and on the rare occasions when there a reasonable complement of C-level women attending (My next blog is about the lack of women leaders btw!) it makes me cross to think the men on the call are taking home nearly 20% more than them.

But is it still a thing? I now keep reading the words ‘wage gap’ when they precede the word, myth.

And now I look into it, I see wage gap deniers popping up all over the Internet to disprove the theory that women are victims of an unfair conspiracy. The American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Summers says the pay gap is: “Simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.”

Joanna Williams of Spiked says there’s an ironic paternalism to the wage gap campaign. She says a “like-for-like pay gap no longer exists,” that it is “an ‘on average’ pay gap, largely down to the choices that women make.”

And I’ve found plenty that suggests women are in some cases the beneficiary of salary discrepancies. This article says women in New York are bucking the trend and bringing home more than the boys. Clearly these women are doing more than relying on good karma to get their raise, as the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, last year suggested is a good strategy to a conference of women working in the male-dominated IT industry … and then, funnily enough, regretted.

Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute, calls the wage gap unfair, sexist and something that needs to be addressed urgently. She’s described Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge that he wants to end the gender pay gap in a generation, as a giant step forward for womankind.

So some women are doing better and those that aren’t choose not to. Oh, but there’s still some rampant sexism limiting women’s pay … which is it?

It seems to me the mythical element appears with the way the issue is most often publicly presented, i.e., when we assume that women earn substantially less than men for doing the same work, primarily as the result of sexist bias by employers.

Reading around the subject I believe a pay disparity does exist, and it does in some cases favour women. Where it doesn’t, sexist discrimination is just one issue that impels it. Other variables are personal choices, i.e., types of job, overtime working, part-time working, taking career breaks to have a family etc.

We need to start a mature debate – one that stops polarising the opinions and removes words like myth and feminist battle from the conversation.

Solutions – we’ve talked about already – government law changes should help, if they can get the fine print right, and ensure organisations give detailed breakdowns on pay by job grade and type. A focus is also needed to change attitudes that exclude women from certain sectors, and encourage more girls to enter careers in the stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And here’s another I think really could make a difference – flexible working.

Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University, believes the biggest reason for the wage gap is a lack of flexibility when it comes to working hours. She is quoted as saying: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether, if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who laboured long hours and worked particular hours.”

But despite modern moves to promote flexible working hours in Europe, a recent report from the UK think tank, The Institute of Public Policy Research found that just 19% of women in the UK were able to vary the hours they work, compared to 41% in Sweden. The wage gap there is estimated at 15.2%. I know, only just over 2 per cent less than the US and UK, but those are two big steps (per cent) in the right direction.

The key thing is that flexible working can narrow quite a few gaps and improve gender equality every which way. When properly implemented, it can help both men and women get some work-life balance and provide a significant improvement in the quality of everyone’s working lives. If it helps women achieve parity in pay…even better.

About the authorClare Forestier

Clare Forestier is a journalist who works for Meet The Boss TV where she moderates virtual business roundtables, interviews thought leaders, and writes and presents blogs and programmes on business issues. She has a background in broadcast news journalism and worked across the BBC and for UK commercial radio and television for 19 years. She has broadcast news to regional, national and international audiences, as a reporter, presenter, producer and online journalist. She has also worked as a media trainer, instructing scientists, academics and civil servants in media skills.

You can connect with Clare on Twitter

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