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10 November 2016

How can women fight the gender pay gap?

The pay gap in Britain stands at 18 per cent – and research shows it's not women's fault. I catch up with five women who successfuly negotiated a higher salary.

By Stephanie Boland

Happy Equal Pay Day! We’ve waited a long time for this, ladies – 86.1 per cent of the year, to be exact – but the big day is finally here. Party hats are expensive, so let’s all grab a piece of printer paper and Google some origami.

Equal Pay Day is an initiative of the Fawcett Society, an organisation dedicated to helping bring about women’s economic equality with men. Its date is determined by the current pay gap, so that the number of days until the end of the year is representative of gender pay disparity. Or, to put it another way: from today, women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year.

The good news is that this year, Equal Pay Day moved from November 9 to November 10. The bad news? Well, get out your calendars and see how long it is until December 31. That’s a lot of days to gaze up, symbolically wageless, at the rain-drenched Oxford Street Christmas lights. (I like to pretend to be a Victorian street child from a Charles Dickens novel while I do this: “Please, sir, may I have some more net income?”)

Okay, that’s being a bit dramatic. After all, women aren’t entirely powerless when it comes to pay. In Iceland, on 24 October, 1975, women protested, among other things, a devaluing of their labour. They not only refused to go to work, but also refused to perform domestic tasks like cooking, cleaning and childcare; tasks that are traditionally unwaged, but contribute substantially to the economy. The next year, Iceland passed a law guaranteeing equal rights for women.

Every ten years since, Icelandic women have stopped work early for a day, to protest the continuing pay gap, which unfortunately still stands at 14 per cent.

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This year, British magazine Stylist has taken inspiration from the Icelandic women, encouraging women to leave work 18 per cent early today to protest in kind. They write:

“Of course, we’re not suggesting a few hours off work compensates for what is, without doubt, a far bigger issue. Our #equalpayday initiative is a simple but symbolic gesture; highlighting the contribution of women and raising awareness of one of the most important economic issues of the day. After all, closing the gender pay gap could add £150bn to the UK’s GDP alone. Not to mention the benefit to both sexes of ensuring your work is equally valued.”

It’s a great idea. But what do you do if you can’t leave work early – like if you’re a shift worker in emergency services or care, or if you freelance?

Well, one thing you can do is ask for a raise. But what happens if your boss says no? A recent study from the University of Warwick, after all, showed that one thing previously blamed for the pay gap – that women don’t ask for more money – in fact wasn’t actually responsible. It turns out, women do ask. They just don’t get. “Having seen these findings,” the study’s co-author Andrew Oswaled said, “I think we have to accept that there is some element of pure discrimination against women.”

But that’s no reason not to try. You never know: you might be successful. These women were.


Design, 39

The job advertised a salary range of £50-60k. My instinct was to ask for £54k and to expect to be given £51k. My boyfriend at the time (ten years older, in his mid-40s and professionally very successful and quite an aggressive negotiator) told me to ask for £65k. After protesting and telling him that’s totally ridiculous, he convinced me to try.

We put together a pitch for why I’m worth it. It wasn’t ridiculous at all: when I wrote it all down my experience looked really quite good, plus I had another job offer as a bargaining tool.

When I say I put together a pitch, I mean I wrote it down and then memorised it – word for word. And then I practised the pitch in front of a mirror at least 20 times. Each time I got more comfortable with it.

I then had the salary negotiation meeting with my current line manager. I was hugely relieved she was on my side because I had bad experience with other women in previous jobs; they can be our worst enemy!

The meeting flowed, I told her why I think I’m worth £65k, word for word from my script. She said she can’t go over the band on offer (I’m employed by a government institution) but offered me £60k. I found out a couple of months later than my male colleague who went for the same band job didn’t negotiate and they started him on the lowest rung. Everyone is rubbish at negotiating salaries but I think it’s fair to say women are much worse than men.

What would be your advice to women going into negotiations?

To do what I did when negotiating starting salary. Very few people do it. Very few people prepare to negotiate – men and women. They think of a couple of points they want to make and without practice (writing it down, reading it out loud, etc) inevitably don’t do themselves justice when they come face to face with the boss.

Insurance (now in the public sector), 30

On a work night out, one colleague who had recently started at the insurance company I worked for, was rather drunk and told me what she earned, which was £2.5k more than me. She’d been with the company one month, whereas I’d been working there (rather grumpily) for nearly two years and was handling quite complex cases, still on my starting wage. I approached my manager about this and went from there.

Was your boss amenable, or did you have to fight?

I got on really well, personally, with my boss so I had no problem approaching her. She confirmed that she was aware of the disparity between pay, but couldn’t do much about it. I had countless meetings with her about it, and, when she realised I wouldn’t let it go, arranged with senior management to have my pay brought up to the same level as the new starts. This was under the assurance that I wouldn’t tell anyone else as they couldn’t do this across the board.

I felt pretty uncomfortable about the whole thing, as I knew how unfair it was. However, quite soon after this I fell seriously unwell and ended up on sick leave for two years before packing it in – the one benefit to working for an insurance company were the sick benefits (can you tell I hated my job?!)

Why do you think the gender pay gap is still so large?

To be honest, I really cannot understand why there is a gender pay gap at all. Does it really come down to the company wanting to invest in a man as they feel he’s more “reliable” – eg. won’t take maternity leave, won’t then ask to work part time – or is it just because they can get away with it, as some women won’t ask? Sometimes, for a guy in the same position, he’s seen as determined. For a woman, she’s seen as up as herself.

Journalism, 27

How did you go into negotiations?

I chose a time when there was a lot of disruption at the company – they’d just laid people off, including my direct manager. I suppose it was a bit risky but I knew they would have already got rid of me if they didn’t want me so I felt empowered. I asked to have a word the next day and I said I felt shaken up by the changes and felt like I would feel more secure if I were paid more. I only asked for a small pay increase

Why do you think the gender pay gap is still so large?

It’s not that men tend to earn more doing the same job, it’s that they rise to higher positions. When I first started working, all my female friends earned more than their partners – largely they worked harder at uni, got better jobs, were more ambitious. But in most cases the men now earn more in our late 20s, early 30s. I think men are being groomed for management at this age, more than women, because men are not expected to leave the workplace. None of my friends even have children yet but there’s a definite sense that they’re perceived as being pre-baby. The stats seem to back this up too as the age where men start to out-earn women. Most bosses are men and they tend to encourage people in their own image.

Also, anecdotally, I’ve noticed men often feel entitled to get a pay rise every year just for existing in their job, whereas women don’t.

What would be your advice to women going into negotiations?

Try and negotiate with the person who is actually responsible for issuing the pay rise and if not, explicitly ask your manager to have your back and fight for you. Choose the time well if you can, ideally just after you’ve done something particularly good.

Media, 20s

Both times I negotiated my salary it was prior to beginning my position. Through my working experience, I have found it much easier to enter on as high a salary as possible as it becomes very difficult to negotiate meaningful gains once in a job.

I think the gender pay gap is massive for a few reasons, but I don’t actually think it comes down to women not negotiating their salaries. I think a lot of women actually do this, if not at their first job, at later jobs. Women may go in asking for less, because they are less overt about their value, which is why I think you should always ask for more than you even think you deserve.

Was your boss amenable, or did you have to fight? (If you think it’s relevant: what gender was your boss?)

My boss is a woman, and the negotiations were actually much tougher than when I had negotiated with men. A lot was expected of me and they made it seem as though I was being really tough. They questioned how much I really “wanted” the job, and implied I was slightly unreasonable in terms of how much I was willing to budge. This is part of the game I believe, and obviously, from the result, I was not.

What would be your advice to women going into negotiations?

The experience showed me a few things. The first was that: salary negotiation is uncomfortable and risky but worth the fight. I am not naturally good at confrontational negotiations, but I think in these situations you have to “fake it till you make it” a bit.  

In order to get what I wanted I had to do research, I had to be strategic about how much I asked for, knowing they would knock it down, and I had to show that I would not take the job and was willing to walk away if I didn’t get a reasonable offer. That was really the riskiest, but most effective, thing for me. Also, thinking of ways you can negotiate with benefits as opposed to direct income increases I have found really effective at the start. In the end, the salary you enter a company on is your biggest opportunity to get a significant raise as things get much tougher when you are in. Make it count.

Senior Management, education sector, 36

I work in education, my boss left and I was offered the “opportunity” to take on his role in an interim basis. Was offered an insulting pay rise. Fought for more, and got it, but it was a shame that I had to be pretty aggressive about it, rather than just my work, achievements and experience being enough “proof” that I deserved it.

Journalism, 28

How did you go into negotiations?

My one-year review was coming up, and I knew that, in asking for a pay rise, I would be asked to account for how my value to the publication had increased over the past 12 months, so I started building my case around that. A colleague from the commercial team offered to help, and made me a list of specific deals he wouldn’t have landed without my input. That enabled me to back up the increase I was asking for with figures showing how I benefited the company financially. It wasn’t an approach I liked particularly, but I thought that in a very male-dominated, bottom-line driven place it was my best chance of success.

Was your boss amenable, or did you have to fight?

There were no other women in my review meeting, nor in any supervisory positions at the company. My boss tried to stop me making my case for a proper rise by immediately offering a very small increase (£250 on my annual salary). This made me really angry – I started shaking and somehow managed to say in a level tone of voice: “Thank you for your offer, but I think you can do better.” After listening to the case I had prepared, my boss said he would think about it over the weekend, and then came back with an offer that was thousands of pounds higher.

What would be your advice to women going into negotiations?

Be incredibly well prepared. Bring as much data as you can gather that demonstrates how much of an asset you are, and wherever possible express it in terms of amounts of money. Feeling passionate about the fact that you are worth more than they are paying you is a good starting point, but it’s much harder for a boss to dismiss you if you come armed with figures as well as words. On top of that, be ready to make all the running in the conversation (it’s not in their interests to make it easy for you to ask). Be prepared to do the hardest thing of all – disagree with the person who is in charge of you. If they say “this is the best we can offer you”, you have to be ready to say: “I disagree, and these figures show that I’m right and you’re wrong”.

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