Gender pay gap: enough is enough

Short term cost is preventing companies from feeling the long term economic benefits of equal employment


According to a survey carried out recently by Chartered Management Institute and XPert HR, female managers in the UK earn on average 22 per cent less than their male counterparts. This equates to them working two hours a day for free.

There must be very few people left in this country who believe that it is justifiable to pay men and women differently when they are doing similar work. It is inequitable and completely outdated. It makes no economic sense to treat women unfairly, especially now that the labour market is so dependent on their input.

Successive governments have shied away from doing very much to make equal pay legislation enforceable. The only significant improvements made since the days of the Ford sewing machinists, now made famous by “Made in Dagenham”, have been those made by trade unions, through collective bargaining and multiple litigation.

The UK will never really address the problem of unequal pay until there are systems in place to expose and tackle the huge gap between what men and women doing similar jobs in the same workplaces are paid. It is no good endlessly introducing voluntary guidance and extolling business to do the right thing. A few have done the right thing – mostly unionised companies – but for most the short term cost stops them.

This is to ignore the long term benefits both to their businesses through attraction and retention of skilled and talented women workers, and to the economy as a whole. In 2013 the government’s own research found that if men and women were equally represented in the workforce, GDP growth could be up to 10 per cent higher by 2030.

The public sector is much better than the private sector with regard to equal pay, no doubt mainly because it is much better unionised, but also because of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

Of course unequal pay is not exclusively a result of sex discrimination, although that does remain a cause. It is also caused by the refusal of many employers to provide flexible working and decent maternity and parental leave policies. This means that women either leave when they become pregnant, or fall behind in their career development at work.

The lack of affordable decent childcare is another contributory factor, as it is still women who do the majority of child rearing. That said, there has been a recent increase in the number of men wanting to work more flexibly.

Career choice and education are also important contributors – girls and young women are still segregated in our education and training systems, despite efforts by the education service to change this. They still tend to choose ‘women’s jobs’ such as hairdressing, retail, catering, cleaning and caring, all of which are systemically less well paid than ‘men’s jobs’ such as construction, engineering, driving and so on.

It is a vicious circle – the jobs are mainly done by women, so they are low paid, rather than being paid at the rate that reflects their importance to the economy or skill levels required. It is an indictment of our pay systems when caring for children is rewarded less well than car maintenance.

The government’s recent move to require companies to publish pay gap information is positive, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need pay transparency and equal pay audits, and a requirement on companies to act on the data to close the gap. Until companies are made to show in detail who gets paid what, then state what measures they are taking to close any gaps, progress will remain sclerotic.

The time has come for those on the left to make equal pay a priority – we are heading for the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. It is not good enough to leave this issue on the ‘too difficult’ pile any longer. There is no excuse for discrimination against over half the population – it must be eradicated once and for all.

Sarah Veale CBE is head of Equality and Employment Rights at the TUC. Follow her on Twitter

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