The gender pay gap: we all know it exists, but it can be hard to know if we’re affected by it directly. Companies in the UK aren’t required to reveal the wage disparity between their male and female staff (although this will change in 2018), and many of us are too British-ly awkward about money to dream of asking outright how much our male colleagues earn.
But if you were in any doubt as to whether the gender pay gap was still that big a problem in the UK, we’ve got some bad news for you.
A new study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found that while the wage gap between men and women has been gradually falling over the past two decades, women are still paid, on average, around 18% less per hour than men.
And there’s a certain point in many women’s lives where the pay gap becomes strikingly apparent.
Among more highly-educated men and women – with A-level or degree qualifications – the wage gap “has not closed at all in the last 20 years”, according to Robert Joyce, associate director at IFS and an author of the study. In 1993, the gender pay gap stood at 28%. However, the IFS’s research found that the gender pay gap has shrunk significantly between men and women with GCSE level and below qualifications.
In other words, the more education you have, the more likely your wage is to be affected by your gender.
An even bigger gulf begins to open up between what men and women are paid once women reach their late twenties and early thirties.
Men – particularly highly-educated men – tend to enjoy a rapid growth in their pay at this point in their lives. But women, in contrast, see their wages plateau.
According to the IFS, women’s decision to have children is key to explaining the pay gap – but it is not the only reason that such a gap exists.
“There is, on average, a wage gap of over 10% even before the arrival of the first child,” the report’s authors say. However, they add that “this gap appears fairly stable until the child arrives and is small relative to what follows.”
What follows is this: after the average woman has her first child, she will then experience “a gradual but continual rise in the wage gap”. By the time her first child is 12, according to the IFS, “women’s hourly wages are a third below men’s.”
The IFS concludes that the average woman earns less than the average man as she get older because she is far more likely to be tasked with childcare responsibilities. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect on her ability to dedicate time to her career.
Once her first child has reached the age of 20, the report says, the average woman will have been in paid work for four years less than men – and have spent nine years less in paid work of more than 20 hours a week.
Ultimately, the IFS says, the pay gap in later life could be the consequence of “mothers missing out on promotions” because they work part-time, or haven’t had the chance to gain enough experience because they’ve been caring for children.
The Shared Parental Leave scheme, hailed as one of the Lib Dem/Tory Coalition government’s most significant achievements, allows fathers in the UK to share their wife or partner’s leave from work after a child is born. It was intended to reduce the level of disruption that becoming a mother caused to women’s careers – and to end the assumption that men should not be stay-at-home parents.
However, research published in August 2016 revealed that only a tiny proportion of new fathers have taken up the government’s offer of Shared Parental Leave since the scheme was introduced in April last year. Figures for the first three months of 2016 showed that just 3,000 couples had joined the scheme, compared to 155,000 mothers taking traditional maternity leave and 52,000 fathers taking paternity leave.
It has been suggested that the strikingly low take-up of Shared Parental Leave could be down to the fact that many companies pay mothers a maternity leave wage far above the legal minimum – but Shared Parental Leave is fixed to the statutory rate, meaning that parents who decide to share their leave could lose out financially.