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Companies are to publish their gender pay gaps – but will this lead to financial equality?

It's been over 45 years since the Equal Pay Act, and the reasons women still earn less than men are complex. To change them, we may need to take more radical action than this proposal offers.

In 2012, researchers at Yale University sent out a CV to 127 different professors. Every professor received the same CV, bar one key difference: half of them were sent out under a male name, while the other half had a female name. The professors believed that they were evaluating a student for a laboratory manager position. In fact, they were taking part in a randomised double-blind study, to see whether the gender of an applicant had any impact on her employability. 

The results were damning. Both male and female faculty members rated the male applicant “as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant”. They also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. 

In this context, the government’s recent announcement that from 2018, organisations with more than 250 employees will be forced to reveal their gender pay gap, is welcome news. Knowledge, as ever, is power, and when the TUC finds that the highest-paid men earn 54.9 per cent more than their female colleagues, the World Economic Forum finds that gender equality in the UK has steadily declined since 2006 and more than 60 per cent of those earning less than the living wage are women, women need all the power they can get.

But will it be enough? The TUC thinks not. They argue that companies that fail to improve should be fined. While this proposal may seem attractive, there is a danger that its consequences could be the opposite to those intended: the evidence from France suggests that companies may choose to pay fines rather than improve gender equality.

An Israeli study may provide the reasoning behind this seemingly obtuse position. When day-care centres started fining parents who arrived late to pick up their children, there was a “dramatic” increase in the number of parents who turned up late. This behaviour may seem illogical, but the researchers had an explanation: by establishing a cost for the inconvenience incurred by the daycare centre, parents were subconsciously given to understand that an option for “paying” for their lateness had been introduced. As a result, they felt more justified in exercising that option, than when the only obstacle they faced was the unimpressed faces of the day-care workers. Sometimes, social pressure is more effective than financial pressure.

So the lack of fines may turn out to be no bad thing, lest companies start to consider a lack of gender equality as little more than a cost of doing business. But that still does not mean that simply forcing companies to be transparent about their gender pay-gap will solve the problem overnight. There is no doubt that laziness and thoughtlessness play their part in the continuation of the pay-gap, and a name and shame approach may help to focus minds. But there are other obstacles standing in the way of women achieving equality. And these obstacles may prove rather more intractable.

The most obvious of these is the fact that women still do the majority of the unpaid carework. Women are more likely to be doing the cooking, cleaning and childcare, as well as looking after sick and ageing relatives. This leaves women with less time to focus on their careers — and results in more women (41 per cent) than men (11 per cent) choosing to work part-time. While the pay-gap between full-time men and women stands at 9.4 per cent, part-time work is far less well-paid than full-time work: according to Fiona Aldridge, of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, part-time workers earn 25 per cent less per hour than their full-time colleagues. Until men start sharing the care burden equally, women will continue to earn less.

The other issue is the jobs that women and men are choosing to do, with typically “male” jobs tending to be higher-paid than “female” ones. Some commentators suggest that therefore the fault lies not with “sexist” employers, but foolish women choosing to work in lower-paid jobs. But an international look suggests it may be more complicated than that. In the West, where doctors are on the whole fairly well-paid, medicine has traditionally been considered a male profession (consider the famous lateral thinking puzzle that requires the radical answer that the surgeon is a woman). But compare this to Russia, where the medical profession has been historically female-dominated. Here, it is one of the country’s lowest paid professions. So are women choosing low-paid jobs, or do jobs that women choose become low-paid?

The reality is that the reasons women continue to be paid less than men over forty years after it became illegal do so are varied and complex, and it is to be welcomed that the government is putting in place measures to enforce this basic measure of equality. But it’s going to take more than a few spreadsheets to do it. The question is, do we have the stomach for anything more radical?

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.