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Women - like men, only cheaper

Josephine Amos & Rachel Fergusson

The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations might not sound particularly exciting but they created tidal waves this week as private sector organisations scrambled to report their gender pay gaps before the midnight deadline.

The final 24 hours saw a flurry of companies rushing to report and, unsurprisingly, the average pay gap rose with almost every submission. Ryanair sparked outrage after it reported its median gender pay gap to be a whopping 71.8% – four times the national average – although it was quick to defend this by pointing out it was the result of pilots being predominantly male and the lower-paid cabin crew being largely female.

When midnight stuck on Wednesday 4th April, 10,016 companies had reported their gender pay figures, with 80% recording they paid men more than women. The Equality & Human Rights Commission said businesses which failed to publish their gender pay gaps could face legal action and “unlimited fines” for non-compliance.

The submissions published revealed a rather depressing, albeit predictable, picture. The financial services sector and construction maintained the largest industry-wide pay gaps, while the dominance of men in management boards of multi academy trusts in England meant the education sector was also flagged as a gender pay gap culprit.

In Scotland, it was only the private sector which was subjected to the new regulations (public-sector bodies are already bound to report their gender pay gap each year). Similar results were reflected north of the border, with Scotland’s financial sector performing particularly poorly. Standard Life reported a 37% median pay gap and mean bonus gap of 68%, while the pay gap at the Royal Bank of Scotland was 36.5%. Scottish airline Loganair also reported a relatively high pay gap of 39%, meaning female employees earnt on average 61p for every £1 male employees made, while Abellio ScotRail revealed just 7% of its highest paid employees were women.

While gender pay gap figures make for incendiary headlines, the data has been criticised. The Institute of Economic Affairs dismissed the data as “meaningless” and “misleading”, as it was skewed by the handful of men at the top of organisations’ payrolls.

Though it is vital that the gender pay gap is not conflated with the issue of equal pay for equal work, or used as evidence of wholesale pay discrimination, the data does serve as an indicator of the structural imbalances embedded in the workforce.

The disparity in workplace structures is largely the result of women being expected to take on primary caring responsibilities. The impact of this is twofold. Caring for children means women are more likely to take flexible part-time work and the time out of work means female career progression is held back while male counterparts continue climbing the corporate ladder. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the gender pay gap increases with the arrival of children. There is a pay gap of around 10% before the arrival of a couple’s first child and, by the time that child is 20, the mother’s hourly wages are around 30% below the father’s.

The data, then, says a lot about the gender inequality which continues to permeate our lives at home and at work. Feminist organisations like the Fawcett Society and Close the Gap have welcomed the publication of these statistics as a “game changer in terms of workplace culture and practice”. They are hoping this will compel organisations to start rethinking the availability of flexible working and for society to reconsider the distribution of caring responsibilities.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph – which reported its own gender pay gap to be 35% – the Prime Minister vowed to tackle the “burning injustice”. Highlighting the current pay gap in the UK is at “a historic low”, she also pointed out the progress in eliminating this gap “remains far too slow”. To put this in context, four months ago the World Economic Forum said the economic gender gap would not be closed for another 217 years at the current rate of progress.

In response to the gender pay gap revelations, some female MPs have come together to create an online forum offering advice to working women on how to tackle the pay gap in their workplace. Adding to the growing number of feminist movements formed over the past year the #PayMeToo campaign, led by Labour MP Stella Creasy, aims to increase the pressure on organisations to tackle systemic pay gaps and add momentum to the fight for gender equality.

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