Got the numbers – why not use them?

7 Apr

Ah, the gender pay gap – have you had enough of it yet? It’s been in the headlines rather a lot lately, thanks to the government’s new reporting regime,  which means that all organisations with over 250 employees had to get their figures in during the first week of April.

So what do the numbers measure? Not equal pay, which is the business of all employees being paid the same amount for the same job, as dealt with in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, whereby pay discrimination was outlawed; but rather the difference between men and women’s average hourly pay in the same company.  At this point, the chorus of dissent begins: it is not illegal to pay men and women differently if they are in different jobs at different levels.  There may be all sorts of good reasons why men and women are paid differently –  e.g. the airline defence: it’s not the company’s fault that nearly all the pilots are men, and most of  the stewarding crew, women.  Also, some argue, if the impetus is to reduce the gender pay gap over time, some companies may offload their least well-paid (predominantly female) employees to change their figures for the better.  Here, you need to imagine large conglomerates, where the highly paid professionals are predominantly male, but the service employees are predominantly female – one solution could be, to outsource your cleaning contracts, so that the gender pay gap appeared to narrow, while simultaneously potentially worsening the employment situation of your lowest-paid female labour force.  Another objection  to gender pay gap reporting might be that a 0% gender pay gap is a kind of totalitarian totem, which signifies little, and rides roughshod over men’s and women’s patterns of employment.

In response, I’d say, yes, the figures are crude, but the very fact that we have them, puts imbalances in the public domain, that were rarely quite so visible before.  The airline defence partly falls down when you  observe variance across the sector: Ryanair’s gender differentials in pay are particularly large, while Easyjet has already noted a problem and has a plan in place to increase the numbers of female pilots on its books; British Airways, on the other hand, does not have a massive gender pay gap by the standards of the sector, as its efforts towards diversity are longer-established, and extend beyond pilots, into engineering and baggage handling and loading roles.  The issue as to why fewer women train for specialist technical jobs requires action in education and expectations, and is one for wider society, not simply employers, to consider.

On the potential outsourcing hurdle, the fact that we now have reporting does mean that gender pay gaps are more transparent, and companies more potentially accountable, because the figures are in the public domain.  What CEO wants to go down as the one who fixed his (and it is usually his)  company’s figures by shuffling women off the books?  After all, it’s been noticed that law firms are not obliged to include partners of firms in their calculations, as they are not employees. As the optics of this exclusion are bad, some firms have published figures with partners included, so that the impact of male dominance at senior levels is more clearly demonstrated.  There are, though, a number of issues related to enforcement of gender pay gap reporting – the EHRC, the body responsible for ensuring that companies do report and are held to account, is poorly resourced and has limited powers to sanction employers.

Finally, on the 0% totem – the fact that there is a relatively small number of companies with gender pay gaps going in favour of women (going ‘past’ 0 if you like) shows that there are scenarios where women can be better paid. A 0% gender pay gap is not some blanket goal, but rather more of a direction of travel indicator, which invites us to think a bit more about what the absence of a gender pay gap might look like, and what the barriers to it may be. As nearly four-fifths of organisations pay men more, we have plenty of time to contemplate these questions.  One pertinent question that arises is what level of gender pay gap is acceptable?  Will gender pay gap reporting mean that deviation from the overall average of reported gender pay gaps, becomes a new benchmark for companies?

And above all of this, the real issue is, why are the figures turning out as skewed towards men as they are?  Two important reasons: one – these are legacy figures, the summation of all the hiring, retention and promotion decisions made over many years up to now.  That was then – let’s plan for a more equal future.

Secondly, all those decisions are the sum of what the numbers in themselves cannot address.  If  we have all these qualified women who are doctors, lawyers, MBA-holding executives, PhDs (and we do, and have had, for decades now) why are they not the senior consultants, law firm partners, ‘C-suite’ office holders, or professors, in near-equal numbers?  And, at least as importantly, why – to name just a few examples –  are the cleaners, care workers, air crew, classroom assistants, secretaries, un-promoted teachers, paid so comparatively badly?  The structural problems of gendered occupational sectors, and poor pay associated with  lack of progression, are crucial to questions of inequality, and unveiled in all their ‘glory’ via gender pay gap reporting.  Public sector organisations – often regarded a good place for professional women to be – have also been shown to have substantial gender pay gaps. For example, the worst performing council on reporting measures has a median gender pay gap of 34%, while 65% of its employees are women.  A range of trade unions, universities and health trusts have also reported gaps well in excess of the average among reporting organisations (median 9.7%).  This raises the question as to what organisations should do to remedy their position.  In public sector organisations, ‘family friendly’ and flexible working options are often available.  What the figures may be indicating is that these options are associated – however subconsciously – with a dearth of career progression: with retention, rather than with promotion, of staff.

It’s not news that caring work is undervalued, whether performed professionally, or outside the workforce, back at home.  In both cases, this work is overwhelmingly done by women.  Until that changes, and until the tendency for ‘feminised’ labour forces to be associated with lower pay is quashed, the gender pay gap is going to persist. Until there’s a will to address the inequalities that stop both men and women balancing childcare, care for relatives, and employment, we’re stuck.  The figures show it. Long ago the Undertones sang ‘You’ve got my number, why don’t you use it?’  On the gender pay gap, we have the numbers, now we need to use them to begin to address all those cultural undertones in the workplace.

 

 

 

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