Every year, we learn that women are still paid significantly less than men on average. It’s all too easy to become jaded – so how can we stay fired up to push for change?
By now, it’s almost a cliche to observe that we’ve become accustomed to bad news. If it doesn’t push you into a constant state of anxiety, the 24-hour media cycle can instead leave you slightly numb, turning you into someone who responds to all but the most appalling updates with something close to a shrug. When you can’t get through the day without reading about climate change, the rise of fascism or whatever Donald Trump’s up to now, it can be hard to get worked up about problems that seem less urgent and immediate.
Personally, I would file the gender pay gap into the latter category. I know, I know: I’m the contributing women’s editor at a women’s publication that has always campaigned for women to be compensated fairly for their work. Surely the discrepancy between women’s and men’s earnings should make my blood boil?
Well… yes, of course it should, and sometimes it does. But to be brutally honest, I often find it hard to summon up the outrage that’s expected of me. Years of reading and writing about the gender pay gap have worn me out, and these days, I’m seldom shocked by the statistics. I’ve seen them get worse when they should be getting better, and I’ve seen them improve at such a glacial pace it’s hardly worth mentioning. Neither makes my jaw drop anymore.
So I wasn’t especially excited about the Office for National Statistics (ONS) releasing its shiny new data on the gender pay gap. I couldn’t imagine that this year’s annual report would reveal that we’d made huge strides on the issue – and, as it turns out, we haven’t.
Among full-time and part-time workers in England and Wales, the gender pay gap has shrunk ever so slightly, falling from 17.8% in 2018 to 17.3% in 2019. But among full-time employees alone, the gender pay gap now stands at 8.9%, a tiny bit worse than it was in 2018 (when it stood at 8.6%).
Not only that, but another new ONS report shows that women in Britain are paid just £380,000 on average over the course of their careers – a whopping £260,000 less than men.
The ONS says the increase in the gender pay gap has been partly influenced by a worsening gulf between the wages of high-earning male and female managers, professionals and other senior officials. But overall, the gender pay gap is also affected significantly by the fact that more women than men are in lower-earning, part-time work. Among women over 50, who are more likely than younger women to hold these kinds of jobs, the gender pay gap currently stands at more than 15% – and shows little sign of declining over time.
These statistics may make you feel angry. But if you’re anything like me, they’ll mainly just make you feel tired.
“You’re feeling exhausted because the gender pay gap itself is effectively a summary of a multitude of inequalities between women and men,” explains Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society.
“It’s all the issues to do with inequality in the workplace and inequalities in caring, wrapped up into a number. That’s why it’s a depressing picture, and that’s why it’s so hard to change. It’s a very, very intransigent problem.”
Harini Iyengar, a barrister and spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party, agrees. “As we approach the 50 year anniversary of the Equal Pay Act only to be told that it will take another 60 years to close the gender pay gap – and that’s just for white women! – it’s easy to feel defeatist about the whole issue of pay equality and the pay gap,” she says.
“But there are some crucial things every woman can do, both to push for action on closing the gap and – equally importantly – to keep your own motivation and that of your fellow women burning.”
So, what are they?
Put pressure on politicians to prioritise the gender pay gap
First of all, it’s important to remember that individual women aren’t ultimately responsible for solving this problem.
“Government must pick up the pace,” says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC. “It’s clear that publishing gender pay gaps isn’t enough on its own. Companies must also be legally required to explain how they’ll close them. And bosses who don’t pay women fairly should be fined.”
It looks like we’re heading for a general election – and while Brexit is sure to be a defining issue at the polls, we should also expect parliamentary candidates to have a clear vision for how their party would increase gender equality in Britain.
This isn’t just a matter of asking your local MP (and their rivals) how they plan to tackle the gender pay gap. It’s also worth investigating if they and/or their party has a stance on flexible working. A lack of structural support for working parents is one of the main reasons why the gender pay gap widens as women get older – and flexible working has been highlighted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as the number one way of improving workplace gender equality in England, Scotland and Wales.
Caroline Waters, deputy chair of the EHRC, has called for “radical change” to the UK’s workplace culture if the gender pay gap is to be tackled effectively. “It’s not just about more women at the top… We need to overhaul our culture and make flexible working the norm; looking beyond women as the primary caregivers and having tough conversations about the biases that are rife in our workforce and society.”
Pay attention to your own workplace
Pay transparency has long been touted as a way to address both the gender pay gap and the related issue of unequal pay. Research by Cornell University suggests that employees benefit when organisations are open about their pay structures, and the BBC Women group published an open letter in 2018 describing pay transparency as the “fastest, cheapest and fairest way to tackle unequal pay”.
Few companies publicise the salaries of individual staff members, but there are ways you can find out more about what men and women earn at your workplace.
“Information is power,” says Iyengar. “If your company has more than 250 employees they have a legal duty to publish a breakdown of their pay gap.
“Look at that data and, if you can, organise with your colleagues and encourage your company to conduct a voluntary pay audit. The more visible the problem becomes, the easier it is to demand that action is taken.”
Iyengar also suggests looking at your employer’s policies on flexible working and shared parental leave. “If possible, suggest they revise these. There is a lot of evidence that policies like this, which help close the pay gap by addressing the structural barriers to women working, are also good for businesses because they help trained, skilled women employees to stay in their jobs and provide the opportunity for businesses to operate extended hours.”
Support women who challenge the status quo
In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in women willing to challenge their employers over pay discrimination – from the thousands of female council workers in Glasgow who went on strike in 2018, to BBC journalists like Carrie Gracie and Samira Ahmed.
Following their stories and supporting them on social media is a great way of ridding yourself of any disillusionment you might feel about the campaign for equal pay – as is standing with solidarity with anyone you know personally who’s fighting a similar battle.
“The one ray of hope I would point to is that we’re seeing more and more women challenging pay discrimination, and we’re seeing more cases being successful,” says Smethers. “There is a growing tide of women who are coming forward and actually challenging the pay discrimination they’re experiencing in the workplace.
“I think that’s a sign that there’s a bit of a shift in terms of attitudes and expectations. Women just aren’t tolerating it anymore – and that’s a good thing.”
Images: Getty Images