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“It’s vital to tackle unconscious bias”: Why we all have a part to play in tackling the gender pay gap - right now


Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, explores how we can all take action to tackle the UK's gender pay gap.

Sam Smethers

Feminist Sam Smethers says:

Statistics released last year show that the UK has the sixth worst gender pay gap in the European Union. The pay gap is lowest in Slovenia at 3.2% and highest in Estonia (29.9%). In the UK, the gap stands at 19.2% - a difference that means women are likely to earn £300,000 less than men in the course of their working lives. 

At the current rate of change, it will take over 50 years to achieve equal pay for women in the UK. Needless to say, it’s time to speed up the pace of change.

Sixty per cent of those earning less than the living wage are women. Women are more likely to work in low skilled jobs and are less likely to make it into the highest paid jobs. Just five of the FTSE 100 Chief Executives are women.

To close the gender pay gap we need to understand that it has multiple causes and we need action to tackle each one.

Women’s work?

The types of jobs that men and women do is highly divided, with women making up 80% of care and leisure workers, and only 10% of those working in the better-paid skilled trades.

Although women are increasingly well educated, this isn’t translating into higher pay. Some 10 years after graduation women are still earning 23% less than their male counterparts.

Woman at work

"To close the gender pay gap we need to understand that it has multiple causes"

The motherhood gap

The overall gender pay gap is lower for women aged 18-39 who are in full-time work, but the gap in hourly earnings increases from age 40 onward, as women spend time out of the workplace to care for children. Though times are changing, women still continue to shoulder the bulk of caring work. As a result more women work part-time, and part-time jobs are paid less per hour than full time jobs.

Discrimination against women because they are pregnant or on maternity leave is illegal, yet when The Fawcett Society surveyed women earning less that £7.44 an hour, one in 10 women had been given a more junior role after returning from maternity leave and around 54,000 mothers a year experience pregnancy discrimination.

They are being forced to leave their job early as a result of being fired, made redundant or treated so poorly that they choose to leave after they become pregnant, or give birth.

Recently the BBC and Essex University both gave women pay rises to address pay discrimination, thereby heading off potential legal claims. However, women now have to pay £1,200 upfront if they want to take a discrimination case against their employer.

These fees have meant many women can’t even afford to hold their employer accountable. Since the introduction of the fees, such cases have fallen by 80%.


"It’s vital to tackle unconscious bias and use targets to measure progress and focus minds"

But what can we do?

We don’t want to wait another 50 years to close the gender pay gap, and there is plenty that employers, government and individuals can do help speed up the pace of change. 

Fawcett are asking employers to advertise jobs at all levels in their organisation as flexible, part-time or a job share unless there is a strong business case not to. This means women don’t have to wait to get the job before they negotiate their flexible working, and employers recruit with an open mind.

Employers can also help by unblocking the pipeline and supporting women to progress to higher-paid jobs. Many organisations already do a good job on this, but men still dominate senior roles, so it’s vital to tackle unconscious bias and use targets to measure progress and focus minds.

In response to campaigning by Fawcett and others, the Government recently announced that they will require organisations employing over 250 people to publish their gender pay gap. It’s a welcome step forward and has already started to focus attention on the issue.

But a single figure won’t tell employers or the public much about what’s really causing inequality.

mother working with baby

Discrimination against women because they are pregnant or on maternity leave is illegal, but it still happens

We want to see employers publish the detail behind the headline pay gap figure, and an action plan to put it right.

We want businesses to go beyond the minimum, and so we are calling for all organisations employing over 50 people to publish their gender pay gap. That means calculating the organisation’s pay gap, but also reviewing the way the organisation values different skills; who gets promoted and who works in different roles, who works flexibly and who holds the top jobs. 

The Government should require this as part of the regulations on pay audits, as well as enforcing proper penalties for those who don’t play by the rules. But regardless of the law, this is something employers can do right now to show their commitment to closing the gender pay gap - as well as getting the most out of their workforce.

It makes good business sense. Identifying what’s holding women back in an organisation will mean employers can maximise potential and get the most out of their employees' skills and talents. Organisations that show they always pay women fairly will earn the good reputation they deserve, and they’ll be able to attract the best talent for every role.

But we don’t have to wait for government or businesses to act – we can all play our own part.

Here are three things you can do:

  • Have a conversation at work about pay, find out what your colleagues earn
  • Ask your employer whether they know about the new regulations which are due to come in to force next year, requiring organisations with over 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap figure, and whether they are ready to implement this change.
  • Join the Fawcett Society and help us to fight for equal pay and equal rights for women.

Sam Smethers will be taking part in a discussion entitled Who earns more? The pay gap at home and abroad on Sunday 26 June at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of Southbank Centre’s Power of Power festival.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.

Photos: iStock 


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