Deadline day: why the gender pay gap review still matters

Comment

It might come as a shock that three out of every four British companies and public entities pay male staff more, on average, than they pay female workers. But then again, it might not. With the arrival of the April 4th deadline for British companies to disclose gender pay gap figures, a familiar story unravels, and a familiar defence is called upon to justify it: yes, women earn less than men, but the figures are warped, the reports are biased, the headlines are wrong. These figures, like most statistics, can be a minefield of deception and interpretive license – so what does this year’s report actually tell us, and what can it expose about our society as a whole?

Every British company employing over 250 members of staff must by midnight today have disclosed the difference between the wages of male and female employees, or will face legal action. The figures used to determine the pay gap are median hourly wage rates, i.e. a comparison of the hourly wage of the average (n.b. as determined by median, not mean) man and woman within a company, or employment sector. The national median pay gap sits at 18.4%, and on average, the vast majority of British firms and employment sectors pay men more than women. The very worst offenders include the financial and energy sectors, with the average woman in the former earning 36.5% less than her male counterpart. Companies like the Royal Bank of Scotland, Goldman Sachs and Virgin Money report pay gaps of over 36% in favour of men. The BBC will tell you that in the financial industry, as a woman, I should expect to earn 65p to my male colleagues’ pound. In one sense of the word, these are facts. But in another, they are facts which are all-too-easily misconstrued in the name of sensationalist headlines and can effectively obscure the very real problems which they should instead be highlighting.

It is important to realise that what cannot be elicited from these figures alone is a direct comparison between what men and women are paid for the same work: median pay is reflective of a company or industry as a whole, and not individual roles within these sectors. What you’re looking for there is the ‘equal pay’ debate which, although worthy in its own right, necessitates more nuanced and detailed statistical analysis into individual companies and roles within them. When headlines jump on a figure such as the £1:65p ratio, they simplify a hugely complex argument by provoking a reactionary response along the lines of “It’s illegal to pay men more than women, so the stats are wrong. End of story.” This invalidates all the necessary conversations that we should be having in response to the report’s findings. It is illegal to pay men more than women for the same work –  it has been since 1970. And whilst equal pay might yet be an unobtained ideal in many circumstances, I would argue that these newly released statistics on pay gaps relate much more to the issue of equality in representation across the wage spectrum, rather than of individual wage rates.

Companies’ gender pay gap revelations are a disappointing reflection on gender equality within contemporary British society.

The fact is that women are disproportionately employed in lower-paid jobs, and there are still not enough women occupying the highest paid positions. With the release of our University’s own gender pay gap figures, Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, comments that “the lack of women occupying senior roles in universities remains a challenge to the Higher Education sector. Oxford, while an exceptional institution, is no exception when it comes to gender equality.” Can Oxford University’s median pay gap of 13.7% be explained by factors of representation alone? It’s irrefutably an important contributory factor: within the University’s upper pay quartile, women represent only 37.2% of workers, whilst in the lowest quartile this figure rises sharply to over 65%.

Oxford is illustrative of a problem which has been shown to be prevalent across nearly all sectors of employment. All too often, we fall back on the argument that “women choose to have children and sacrifice their careers” to shy away from the reality of the situation. Lifestyle choices alone cannot account for the chasmal disparity in median pay between men and women – we have to face up to a chronic shortage of women occupying the highest paid positions. There are a number of reasons for the inequity: much of it is a residual impact of historical gender imbalances which will take time and investment to redress, some can be accounted for by discrimination in the workplace and bias in pay negotiation. The good news is that it’s a situation which is improving, although arguably not quickly enough. The UK’s gender pay gap is still above both the EU and OECD averages, and young, British women continue to face a job market whose pay gap figures would suggest that it inherently favours men over them.

Companies’ gender pay gap revelations are a disappointing reflection on gender equality within contemporary British society. Whilst yes, we should be wary of the way in which its data is presented to us in the media, we should not use circumspection as an excuse to stifle its message: equal representation matters, and somewhere, we’re still going hideously wrong.