No pay day for women
Today is Equal Pay Day – the point in the year where, because of the gender pay gap in the UK, women start, effectively, working for no pay. In other words because, on average, women are paid 17% less than men, they miss out on around two months’ pay a year.
Gender pay inequality is a deeply embedded form of discrimination at work. Usually, but not always, unintentionally employers value work done by women less highly than work done by men, sometimes even where men and women are doing the same job.
Furthermore for historical and social reasons, women tend to do jobs such as childcare, hairdressing, cooking and these jobs have traditionally been less well paid than jobs such as engineering that have been done by men. This occupational gender job segregation is the main cause of unequal pay.
Trade unions have done a fantastic job in advancing equal pay through a combination of collective bargaining and strategic litigation – most of the landmark cases that have improved the law have been taken by unions. Equal pay is a systemic problem that can only effectively be challenged through collective means; one problem with the equal pay legislation is that it relies on individual claims and is slow and difficult to use.
Despite sex discrimination in pay systems being illegal since the Equal Pay Act of 1970, there is still a gender pay gap of nearly 17% for full time workers and a staggering 36% gap for part time workers. This means that on average, men are paid 17% more than women for doing work of equal value to society and to their employer. If any other piece of legislation had failed so spectacularly there would have been a national outcry but for whatever reasons, apart from what unions have achieved, not a great deal has been done to ensure that gender pay equality is achieved. It is a sad indictment of our society that a car mechanic is valued at a much higher rate than a nursery school teacher; what is more important to our society – cars or children?
One way of moving things along would be to find out, employer by employer, who is paid what and for which job. This can be done by conducting a pay audit in each company, or in some way ensuring that pay systems are transparent. The TUC believes that the Equal Pay Act of 1970 should have been reviewed as part of the Equality Act to legislate for pay transparency. The Act allows for mandatory auditing in the future but only if the voluntary approach still fails to deliver and not until 2013 at the earliest. The voluntary approach to equal pay audits and transparency hasn’t worked: by 2005 only a third of large employers had completed one. There needs to be a change in legislation to catch the ‘laggards’ as recommended by Denise Kingsmill in the 2001 Government commissioned review of the gender pay gap.
There are other issues that determine how much women are paid. Women are usually the parent who takes on the majority of childcare and caring responsibilities for disabled or elderly family members. Flexible working opportunities need to become more widespread. Women often become stuck in low skilled, part time work simply because it is all that is available on a part time basis. The TUC welcomes the recent review of the right to request to work flexibly and the Government’s commitment to extend that right to parents of school age children but ideally we would like it to apply to every worker. Industries that have been male-dominated often do not provide the career break or flexible working opportunities or may have workplace cultures that are unattractive to the women who enter them.
Organisations have got better at retaining women post-maternity leave (e.g. with right to request) but more needs to be done to help those who have had career breaks and dropped out the labour market get back into employment. Employers could offer targeted skills refresher courses. They should also ensure their apprenticeship and development schemes encourage mid-career applicants to apply, rather than just aiming them at young people
There is potential within the gender equality duty, which is not yet realised. It places a clear obligation on public sector organisations – councils, hospitals, Government departments and so on – to take action to tackle the gender pay gap but it was only introduced in April 2007. It has now been weakened by the Equality Act because of the way in which the Government intends to implement it. It is not yet clear how easy it is going to be in future to enforce the duty and if it is not easy to enforce it is less likely to be taken seriously.
The public sector could use procurement to get the private sector to take action to close the gap. This is a way of ensuring that public money is spent in a way that promotes public policy and could encourage the private sector to implement measures to close the gender pay gap.
Finally, there is the important issue of education and training for girls and women. Are schools and universities giving young women good career advice and equipping them with necessary future skills? Can better educational and workplace training combat the current skills shortage? How can occupational segregation be better tackled? Employers need to ensure that women who enter male-dominated occupations are retained. For example, half a million women in UK have science engineering and technology qualifications but less than a third work in those sectors when they leave school or college or graduate. Girls need a lot of encouragement to persuade them that they can and should be competing with men for all jobs – and men need to be encouraged to see “women’s” jobs as worth doing, including being better paid. It’s a vicious circle but there are some encouraging signs – far more men are now qualifying as nurses and secretaries and far more women are qualifying as doctors and solicitors. But there is still a long way to go, especially with the less skilled jobs.
We’ll get there, as it makes sense in every way in today’s society. But we can’t let it take another thirty years!