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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 19-Dec-13 11:30:51

The gender pay gap is widening - we need to be asking why

Data from the Office of National Statistics has revealed that the difference between men and women's pay has increased for the first time since 2008.

Here, Mumsnet blogger Head in Book considers why inequality in the workplace is still rife, and questions how much 'choice' women really have when pursuing careers. Do read the blog and tell us what you think on the thread below.

Head in Book

Head in Book

Posted on: Thu 19-Dec-13 11:30:51


Lead photo

Mind the gap? Women must not resign themselves to this depressing backwards step.

Last week, GM became the largest organisation to date in the USA to name a woman as CEO. The appointment of Mary Barra, in what has to be possibly the archetypal male world of car manufacturing, was some welcome good news, at a time when coverage of women in the workplace can seem dominated by the idea that they represent a “burden” to their employer.

But just two days after the announcement, the Office of National Statistics released its annual report on pay across the UK. The headlines were startling: for the first time since 2008, men and women’s earnings have started to pull further apart, with the gap increasing from 19.6 per cent to 19.7 per cent. The gender pay gap is actually increasing.

The most shocking jump is in the difference in the wages of men and women who work full time. In its analysis of the figures, the TUC says that the gender pay gap was actually 15.7 per cent in 2013, up from 14.8 per cent the year before. On average, therefore, a woman is paid £5,000 less per year than a man.

It’s true that the changing dynamics of part-time work muddy the waters around pay differentials - the ONS data shows the impact of increased part-time working across the board, with the number of people taking reduced hours because they are unable to find a full-time position having reached its highest level since 1992. Nevertheless, it remains the case that average rates of pay are significantly lower for part-time than full-time work, and that the part-time workforce is overwhelmingly female.

“Men are just better at negotiating pay rises”, goes one explanation. Well, yes, perhaps the average alpha male does swagger into his (male) boss's office, fully convinced that he is entitled to a raise. Or, perhaps, many women feel that they have already used up their bargaining chips on requests for part-time or flexible hours to accommodate caring responsibilities.

So what is going on, and what can be done about it? Is it a regrettable but incidental casualty of the country’s economic woes? That the story gained comparatively little coverage in the press would suggest that the media thinks so - but the rest of us can’t afford to take a fatalistic, resigned approach to this depressing and damaging shift.

“Men are just better at negotiating pay rises” goes one explanation. Well, yes, perhaps the average alpha male does swagger into his (male) boss’s office, fully convinced that he is entitled to a raise. Or, perhaps, many women feel that they have already used up their bargaining chips on requests for part-time or flexible hours, or using their holiday at short notice to accommodate caring responsibilities. Perhaps they genuinely have a poorer case to argue for equivalent pay, because they've missed out on experience or training due to time out of the workforce or the workplace.

The fact that childbearing can significantly change a woman’s career path is less of an elephant than a great stinking nappy in the room: impossible to ignore; still needing to be changed. The figures show that men and women in their twenties and thirties earn very nearly the same, so ongoing gender discrimination and occupational segregation - whilst still factors - cannot be the only reasons for the gap.

What stood out for me in the report was a footnote to the huge jump in the gender earnings gap in the over forties:

“This is likely to be connected with the fact that many women have children and the time taken out of the labour market, combined with career choices they make subsequent to this, may impact on their earnings thereafter.”

The aim of the ONS report is to crunch numbers, not reach conclusions, but the words they chose to use - “career choices made subsequent to this” - hint at the insidious impact of the assumptions made in our working culture. “Career choice” suggests a much greater degree of agency in working life after children than many women actually enjoy.

The availability and affordability of childcare; the huge amounts of airtime given to debates on whether employers should give jobs to women of childbearing age; the general assumption that having children – and every decision relating to them which comes afterwards – are exclusively women’s issues. Together, these have a far greater impact on women’s working ‘choices’ than the ONS seems to suggest, as do the other caring responsibilities which fall disproportionately to women.

The TUC have called for all new public sector jobs (oxymoron though that might be) to be made part-time or flexible, so that women don’t have to “trade down”. More widespread disclosure of pay scales - albeit only in larger organisations - is already envisaged under the Equality Act 2010. Full implementation of these measures, together with robust and continued scrutiny, is needed to ensure that this year’s figures are quickly reversed. So, too, however, is a change in the way we talk about and value women’s labour - both in the workplace and outside it.

By Head in Book

Twitter: @headinbook

funnyvalentine Tue 24-Dec-13 00:04:38

fastloris, are you really asking whether law can change culture? I wonder if incentives in law might work well , like use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave, or tax breaks for companies that have equal board representation*. In contrast to, say, a fine for unequal pay due to gender. But yes, in general, I think culture changes far slower than law in many areas. Though, not in all. Plenty of changes are supported by general population before they make it into law (gay marriage for example).

* I'm in no way endorsing these ideas, just examples off the top of my head!

FastLoris Tue 24-Dec-13 16:07:42

The problem with that is that it requires prejudging what culture "should" change into. If our aim is to maximise freedom of choice for both genders, then it's not really valid to do that, because by doing it you shoehorn people into the choices you've pre-decided they should make.

In terms of the current issue, there are people who believe that men's and women's psychology and choices would be exactly the same if it weren't for the kinds of social pressures we are attempting to remove. And there are those who believe that women overall have an innately stronger nurturing instinct due to the fact that they carry the child inside them, give birth to it and breastfeed it. There's not really enough evidence to claim either view as absolute fact. Suffice to say, you don't have to be a full-on misogynist conservative to see some possibility of truth in the second one.

So it may be that if we all had absolutely free choice over the matter, you would still see more women than men compromise their careers to spend time rearing children, like I've observed among people I know. The difference might reduce but not disappear entirely. Hell, for all I know you may see it reversing and more men making that choice. We just don't know.

This is why I dislike things like the popular discourse about the pay gap - it presupposes that the final result of a genuinely free society would be equal numbers of men and women choosing to follow equally focused careers and making equal amounts of money, and that we can therefore do things arse-backwards. Rather than just increasing choice, we artificially generate the OUTCOME that we BELIEVE such choice would lead to. The problem is we really have no evidence that such beliefs are correct, and to the extent that we are wrong, we would actually be infringing upon choice by doing that.

Unfortunately doing it the right way around - increasing choice and then just leaving events to take their course - does tend to result in a slower pace of change because it takes several generations for social conditioning to work its way out of society. But I don't really see a way around that.

aquatiger1987 Thu 26-Dec-13 07:01:27

without women giving birth, they wouldn't even be able to hire anybody at all, because they wouldn't even exist

so the fact that they are paying women less money based on maternity leave is preposterous in my opinion

I know there are other factors as well: more sick days, with some cultures the men only want men looking after them at hospitals and there aren't as many male nurses, etc. But whatever, I still think it's ridiculous due to the fact that they wouldn't even be able to hire anybody if it weren't for women having babies, because they wouldn't exist. Hiring men over women some of the time due to the cultural thing (in some circumstances like at hospitals), I can understand, but I don't understand the difference in wages.

For the sick days, I don't see why they just can't say for both men & women, "you get this many sick days per year to get paid, and any days after that and it gets deducted from your pay"... instead of paying women less money per pay cheque in general.

Women getting less money for maternity leave... give me a break. Sounds like morals have gone completely out the window on this one to me, and it's all about money and not people.

AskBasilAboutCranberrySauce Thu 26-Dec-13 18:21:28

V interesting and relevant blog post here

slightlyglitterstained Thu 26-Dec-13 20:53:39

This one got Professor Black widely criticised back in 2003, for making a similar point to the blog:

I suppose you could argue the opposite has happened in IT - majority of programmers were female at the start, as it became more male dominated it became more lucrative. (Which came first, I don't know.)

If you're still having probs reading last post, try showing all messages?

EBearhug Thu 26-Dec-13 23:10:50

I suppose you could argue the opposite has happened in IT - majority of programmers were female at the start, as it became more male dominated it became more lucrative. (Which came first, I don't know.)

In the early days, programming was seen as low status, hence more women, and then they needed all the staff they could get as computing took off. It got more professionalised and thus more high status - and that lead to it being more of a career that men would consider, and women got pushed aside.

There's an interesting book with a number of different articles on the subject - Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing, Thomas Misa (ed)

slightlyglitterstained Fri 27-Dec-13 04:40:29

Ooh, looks like an interesting read -thanks EBearhug!

<looks at ever growing to-read pile and weeps>

FastLoris Sat 28-Dec-13 14:38:13

aquatiger -

I don't know what kind of biology you learnt at school, but you DO know that there is more than one person involved in making babies, don't you? shock

As for the rest, I don't think it's the maternity leave as such that is the issue, so much as the lack of career progression during that time. One parent going to work every day while the other stays at home is not just earning the wage that they earn; they're also continuing to progress within their profession - getting recognition that might lead to promotion, meeting people etc. So if the other oarent goes back to work 10 years later they won't just go back to being in the same situation as each other.

Of course this tends to be more of an issue in the more competitive, pushy industries than for those who just pootle along in a steady job. But then those industries are the highest earning ones, so a preponderance of men within them skews the earning statistics beyond their actual numbers.

AskBasilAboutCranberrySauce Sat 28-Dec-13 18:27:10


AskBasilAboutCranberrySauce Sat 28-Dec-13 18:30:32

Women don't stay out of the workplace for 10 years though.

All the data shows that women who only stay out for a couple of years never catch up.

While men who stay out a couple of years, do.

Women who don't have children at all earn less than men.

There's a reason why professions dominated by women, have an average wage far lower than those dominated by men.

We have to stop pretending that sexism isn't a major reason why women are paid less than men. If we don't, our daughters will be having this discussion in thirty years time.

NiceTabard Sat 28-Dec-13 18:59:01

Had a lot of thoughts but they can be summed up with "what basil just said" grin

ohnoitshimagain Sun 29-Dec-13 07:38:53

I have never seen an advert in the local paper or job centre, that has advertised a dual rate of pay - have you?

EBearhug Sun 29-Dec-13 11:03:37

I've seen plenty of jobs advertised at "competitive rates", and then you have to get the right balance between your last salary, market rates, bargaining hard and not pricing yourself out of the job. Women are generally not as good as men at this, apparently, just as they're less likely to apply for a job unless they match a greater number of the requirements than a man would. I don't know if that's going to change with younger women., if they will feel they don't need to make more concessions because of maternity leave and flexible working, and just being grateful to have a job at all, rather than expecting the employer to show some gratitude (via the pay package) to be employing someone who is so great at their job (even if they're not great.)

AskBasil Sun 29-Dec-13 11:12:14

Of course employers don't advertise that they don't pay men and women equally ohnoitshimagain.

That would be illegal.

While actually paying men and women unequally, is not illegal as long as you can fit your unfairness into the (deliberately inadequate) legal framework.

AskBasil Sun 29-Dec-13 11:18:00

"Women are generally not as good as men at this, apparently, just as they're less likely to apply for a job unless they match a greater number of the requirements than a man would."

And of course when women do bargain as hard as men, they are seen as aggressive and dislikeable by both men and women so they're less likely to get the raise. So they can't win. This is not because they are doing something wrong, it is because the attitudes towards them are wrong.

When men apply for a job and they don't match all the requirements, employers focus on what they do match and are willing to invite them in for interview even if they don't match all the criteria. When women do the same, employers see that they don't meet all the criteria and are less likely to invite them in for interview.

Again, women are not doing anything different from men but are being treated differently when they do.

I just don't think we can stress this often enough. There is so much vested interest in pretending that sexism is a non-issue, that it doesn't exist anymore and that inequality is all down to women's choices. We have to keep refuting this otherwise it will never be tackled.

NiceTabard Sun 29-Dec-13 12:36:00

Oh hold on everyone!Jobs aren't advertised with two pay rates, ergo there is no unfairness in pay between men and women at all!

Phew well thank god someone came and pointed that out before we wasted any more time. Let's all go home!

But hold on what's this?

And this?

And at the other end of the scale this?

etc etc ad nauseum

I must be imagining them smile

babsie007 Mon 30-Dec-13 13:04:09

I am paid £14,000 less than a less experienced male counterpart and my employer justified it with having to pay him a London salary in comparison to my North East salary.

AskBasil Mon 30-Dec-13 17:05:48


Childrenofthestones Wed 01-Jan-14 08:41:33

You earn more on average.

Conducted by the research firm Reach Advisors, a study found that that unmarried, childless women age 22-30 who live in cities are earning more than their male counterparts. How much more? The median-full time salary of these women is 8% higher than men in the same age group. In several cities, that figure is significantly higher."

Childrenofthestones Wed 01-Jan-14 08:47:37

My previous reply was to sashh' question below. It was at the end of page one, but as often happens here the add message link didn't work

sashh Sat 21-Dec-13 12:15:50
What about those of us who have no children and never intended to?

Mary1972 Wed 01-Jan-14 08:51:33

It's fairly simple for many - lean in and keep asking for more pay. Both my daughters were talking about this on holiday. They both really pushed male bosses this year for pay rises. The older one in the City said even her male colleagues did not do it as forcefully as she did and seem less bothered than she is about pay. The younger consulted me quite a lot at the time of her pay submission.

All the time I reject work (I am self employed) if the pay is not high enough. (Also I always worked full time with virtually no maternity leaves for 30 years in highish paid work which I deliberately chose and it has worked out wonderfully well - i.e. I leaned in).

Also make those teenage girls thinking about PR or arts or hairdressing realise how that can ruin your life or at least the income side of it - push them into being leading brain surgeons not call centre workers.

Chunderella Wed 01-Jan-14 13:02:43

Interesting thread. I think this is also affected by the recession and people feeling less economically secure generally. So couples try and keep one career 'pristine' ie with no maternity leave, reduction of hours etc, because it feels less risky.

That is, the mere fact of being pregnant and giving birth negatively impacts on the woman, in an unavoidable way. There are people who see a pregnant woman as less competent, for example, and a visibly pregnant woman also is less likely to go for and get promotions or new jobs. Then, the vast majority of women require at least some maternity leave. Sure, there are a few who work right up to the birth and are back in the saddle within days. But the majority of us are not well enough to do so in very late pregnancy and for a few weeks after giving birth, and this is inevitable. So physical factors mean that the woman is already at greater risk of being penalised due to parenthood, before any decisions on returning to work are made. Meaning that if the couple want/need one parent to change work patterns because of childcare, if the father does it then both parties risk being penalised because of parenthood. The worry is that if the mother takes maternity leave and then the father goes part time, both of them have then shown themselves to be uncommitted and will be first on the redundancy list. Whereas if one of them keeps towing the line, and it will have to be the one who doesn't get pregnant or give birth, there isn't that risk.

There is some element of choice in this, but some of it is also forced. So it shouldn't be characterised as reflective of women's choices, when it's simply an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

slightlyglitterstained Wed 01-Jan-14 14:46:47

Thing is though, is there is no obligation or expectation to put maternity leave (as opposed to an actual career break) down on a CV, so it's only really within one company that it's actually obvious you had mat leave at all.

I don't know if "feels less risky" is really the motivation Chunderella - or more the post-fact rationalisation. People tend to do things and then make up a reason why they did it that way - I think the underlying motive is actually just expectations about women's expected role in the home and workplace, but it sounds a lot better to say "oh, well we were FORCED, you know, it just DIDN'T MAKE FINANCIAL SENSE".

Chunderella Wed 01-Jan-14 21:53:49

It's probably both. We do know that there are people who have no choice but to observe the conventional roles for financial reasons. Just as there are others who actively prefer it that way and still more who sort of fall into it.

Additionally, I don't think the thing about it only being obvious within one company that you had ML is a) true, not in small world industries where everyone knows each other like mine anyway, and b) relevant, since the majority of women who return to work do so with the same employer, and will therefore spend a period of time in an environment where their maternity is a known fact.

phoolani Mon 27-Jan-14 22:49:54

god, can we just call it what it is? this is not a 'gender' pay gap, the statistics back that up. It's a 'parent' gap - mothers (in general) suffer from having kids in a way that fathers simply do not. to call it a gender gap completely misses the cause of the inequality and if you miss the cause, you can never sort out the effect.

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