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Focus On... Gender Pay Gap Inquiry

Aidan Reid

As the Economy, Jobs & Fair Work Committee hunkers down to the task of producing a report on the gender pay gap, it felt a prescient time to offer a synopsis of the six oral evidence sessions it held on this subject. After all, it is not as if there is an election we should be covering at this very moment…

In some Committee inquiries, a multifaceted makeup of the witnesses would possibly lead to a dilution of their work, with focus lost among the numerous perspectives being paid consideration. In this instance, though, it merely accounted for the enormity of the problem the Committee was tasked with investigating. Evidence from members of public sector bodies (such as Police Scotland) followed on from conglomerates (such as Diageo) as this issue is a reality for many organisations in Scotland, both public and private. Occupational segregation, a greater likelihood of women filling lower-paid roles and a lack of progression for women to senior roles prevail.

The first consideration of every session was whether there existed sufficient data on the gender pay gap which could be extrapolated to explore where it existed and why. While this may seem a purely technical debate to have, the answers given provoked key discussions as to the manifestations of the pay gap which were not measured currently, particularly the fact that 42% of women employed only have a part-time contract. The failure to include part-time pay in pay gap calculations by the private sector was consistently raised and noted by Minister for Employability & Training, Jamie Hepburn, in his evidence session. With only 13% of men working part-time, the need to examine the distortive effect this differential has on the pay gap would seem fairly clear.

Witnesses also sought to highlight the notion of gendered work, leading to women being placed in “lower-risk” roles which did not benefit from additional bonus and overtime opportunities. The failure to broaden the statistics to account for other groups, such as BME and disabled workers, was also acknowledged, with each of these groups reported as suffering from pay discrimination.

The importance of education was drawn upon by witnesses in every session, whether or not they were educationalists themselves. Attracting more women into STEM subjects was discussed as a proverbial silver bullet, but the solutions to achieve this stretched across the entire educational experience of girls. Challenging cultural norms dictating certain roles were “a boy’s job” was thought to be a task which had to begin at nursery. At the other end of the scale, introductory courses targeted exclusively at women were cited as a means of helping women ease into currently male-dominated environments, such as engineering and construction. In between early years and further education, numerous classroom initiatives were cited, including demasculinising the language used to discuss careers in currently male-dominated professions.

There is little question, then, that efforts are being made to break down barriers in education, with some success based upon increased female participation in professions such as the law. Entering the slipstream of these professions appeared to be only the start of the battle, though.

Nurses within the NHS automatically dropping pay grades after returning from maternity leave was just one of many working practices cited as stymying a woman’s progress towards a senior role after reaching the profession of her choice. The sense that women, even today, were still punished for pursuing family commitments was regularly highlighted. If such occurrences were dispiriting, solutions such as returnships for women over the age of 40 and flexible working patterns for those women coming back from maternity leave also featured frequently. The benefits of such initiatives were regularly spoken of, albeit without a clear Scottish data set demonstrating the benefits of such initiatives for both large and small businesses. Such data, if collected and disseminated, could well provide a key plank upon which to make the argument to businesses to do all they can to retain female staff.

What perhaps proved to be the crucial underlying issue raised was the unspoken or cultural nature of the pay gap. Whilst organisations time and again insisted they were attempting to make changes, the mere notion of a “boy’s job” being established in the minds of children even before primary school emphasised how ingrained presumptions about the role of women in the workplace appeared to be. Stories of careers advisors indicating to a girl that she would be “one of only two girls in the room” if she attempted an engineering course show how that attitude spreads even through to individuals acting in what they believe to be the best interests of the girl.

The very low uptake of shared parental leave by fathers is a further indication of how, despite the best efforts of individual organisations, cultural norms still played a role in dictating the choices of people today.

In terms of illuminating what the problems are, it would be hard to fault the Committee for their efforts. As for what can be done to turn current gains and initiatives into the widespread, systemic change which is likely needed to close the pay gap, we await the report’s findings. Its willingness to move from diagnosis of the problem to considering and recommending treatments administered by both private enterprise and the public sector will perhaps define the value of the inquiry.

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