Equal Pay Day – We know there’s a problem, let’s start talking about the solutions.
Once again Equal Pay Day is upon us and once again, there is little in the way of good news. The gender pay gap stands at 15%, unchanged on the year before. We know the reasons for the persistent gap between men and women’s pay are varied and complex, ranging from occupational segregation, a lack of well paid part time work, a culture that still expects men to earn a crust while women hold the baby, and outright discrimination.
Yet, the fact that the causes are complex and varied doesn’t mean we’re dealing with an insurmountable problem. The gender pay gap is a tough nut to crack but there are several steps that the government and employers could and should take in order to tackle this problem.
So far, government action on equal pay has consisted of new provision in the Equality Act, which allows workers to share information about how much they earn with their colleagues. Clearly this is a helpful step. We know that more transparency in the system is needed. An EHRC study of pay practices in large private sector employers found that 49% gave staff no information at all about pay, 18% discouraged or forbade discussions about pay and only 4% formally made employees aware of how much colleagues in the same role were earning. Yet this provision alone is unlikely to do much to tackle the gender pay gap. Just as the recent Elle “rebranding” of feminism, called on women to “ask him [a male colleague] his salary”, and Jo Swinson recently called on women to ask what male colleagues earn, this approach puts the onus on women to challenge unequal pay practices. Pay systems are often extremely complex – any successful strategy to eliminate the pay gap shouldn’t rely on individuals getting hold of and interpreting pay data. The onus must be placed firmly back with government and employers who should be gathering and publishing pay data, rather than the individual worker.
The government has also set up a voluntary initiative called ‘Think, Act, Report’ which is meant to encourage gender equality reporting by employers with more than 150 employees in the private and voluntary sectors. Over 100 big employers have signed up to the initiative yet no one can point to any examples of companies actually measuring the pay gap as part of this initiative (companies are allowed to choose what they measure when they sign up) or how many women have benefited from it. When asked in Parliament how many companies had made commitments to address the gender pay gap under the initiative, the government’s rather predictable response was that answers could “only be produced at disproportionate cost”.
Given that a couple of years into the Think, Act Report initiative, we’re none the wiser as to pay practices and pay gaps in those companies that have signed up, I would suggest that the voluntary approach has failed to deliver. The TUC has long been calling for mandatory equal pay audits for all employers.
It’s not just unions and organisations such as the Fawcett Society who want to see this. The BIS Select Committee inquiry into women and work stated in its final report earlier this year that
“there is existing legislation addressing inequality in pay that has not yet been implemented. The Government should introduce regulations under Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 [to require large private sector employers to publish gender pay gap information].”
The Women’s Business Council are for it. When giving evidence to the aforementioned BIS Select Committee, Fiona Woolf, from the Women’s Business Council, said, “I think equal pay audits are important”. She supported her view with some examples:
“I was involved in an equal pay audit, which was done by a new chief executive, somewhat to the surprise of the organisation. They said, ‘Well, we do not think there is anything that we will find.’ Of course, guess what? The result was indeed that there were some gender pay gaps that were quite startling. I then become President of the Law Society and we looked at the equal pay of the legal profession as an issue and discovered that, after lots of corrections for different types of work and different regions of the country, we still had a 7.9% pay gap in the legal profession, which was outrageous when you thought about the profession it was. As you might imagine, I am quite a fan of it.”
Cosmopolitan magazine thinks mandatory pay reporting is a good idea and has even created an e-petition (now closed) calling for Government action.
Even the government’s own Women and Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, seemed to favour the idea when she said last month,
“The Government has the power to require compulsory pay audits. If we cannot make significant progress through this initiative, companies need to know that the Government is serious about closing the pay gap. I would agree the gap is not reducing enough, given that we’re 40 years on from the initial legislation to say that men and women ought to be paid equally.But I think we need to recognize that the Government does have the power to impose equal pay audits and it may well be that if we do not see success through Think, Act, Report, that might be the only way to make this happen.”
Jo Swinson is right to point out that the government has the power to introduce equal pay audits. The Government could also improve the Public Sector Equality Duty but including a requirement to measure the gender pay gap. This exists in Scotland and there is no reason why we couldn’t follow the Scottish example in other parts of the UK.
As the Timewise Foundation, the Resolution Foundation and others have pointed out, too much flexible/part time work is low paid. The government and employers could do more to encourage more, better paid, flexible work. A good starting point would be allowing flexible working requests to be made on day one of a job rather than after 6 months. The public sector could lead by example and offer all jobs on a flexible basis unless a good reason could be given as to why this wouldn’t work for a particular job role.
We need better and cheaper childcare so women are able to return to work full time if they want to and aren’t caught out by the staggeringly high part time pay gap (34%).
Finally, the government needs to scrap tribunal fees which present a huge barrier (to the tune of £1,200) to anyone wanting to challenge sex discrimination.
So, rather than wring our hands despairingly and write off another year of stalled progress on the gender pay gap, let’s start talking about the solutions.