Women continue to earn less than men – what should be done?
In the public sector, a lot has been done to rectify unequal pay over the last 10 years. It has been compulsory to compare workers who do not do the same job but which are deemed to amount to work of equal value. For example, cleaners who are predominantly women have been paid less than bin workers who are almost exclusively men.
This has led to hundreds of thousands of claims for unequal back pay, and hence enormous bills to Councils and the NHS which ultimately tax payers have had to pay. From here on, however, there should be pay reasonable pay equality in the public sector.
That said, this measure alone will not necessarily mean more women will rise to the senior positions in the public sector. Nor is it inevitable that women in the top jobs will be paid as much as the top men in different, but comparable, public sector organisations.
And in the private sector, it is a different story entirely with unequal pay still rife. The government’s proposal to require larger companies to report on their own gender pay gap is therefore a step in the right direction, but is unlikely to tackle the problem on its own.
Strangely enough, there is little consensus on what measures should be taken. At senior and board level, some argue for quotas whilst others are rigidly opposed. There are those who maintain that there are too many structural obstacles in the way, such as: the prevalence of zero hour contracts; the lack of universal, easily accessible and affordable child care; failure to embrace flexible working for women returning from maternity leave.
Interestingly, there is some research which indicates that diversity training programmes lead to a drop in the likelihood that under-represented groups becoming managers. Is this because, from a gender standpoint, this type of training leads to more self-evaluation and women are more self-critical than men? Food for thought for the HR industry and employment lawyers.
Perhaps it comes down to our unconscious biases about the roles which men and women should play in society: for example, many of us still associate women with families and men with careers. In the same way, it is said that women do not generally fight for more pay as they have a greater inclination to want to be liked and not be difficult. Common sense dictates there must be something in these stereotypes.
It would be facile though to say that any one measure would resolve the situation. The answer surely lies in practical changes which companies can implement, eg on recruitment and selection practices, pay negotiations, performance evaluation and teamwork. The trick is knowing which of these have a positive impact and those which, despite best intentions, may make matters worse.
The big downside to these kind of measures, however, is that they are likely to be beyond the reach and cost of most SMEs. So what is the one measure which all companies can implement, no matter how small? This is simply to be open and transparent about staff pay so that everyone can measure themselves: if you do not know what other people are paid, how can you complain?
But this works both ways: deep down most people – men and women – do not want others to know how much they are paid. This suggests that the solution lies in a fundamental shift in thinking by everyone, not just companies. Otherwise, I suspect unequal pay will be with us for many years to come.
(c) Ben Thornber, Thornber Employment Law Ltd