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21 December 2017updated 22 Dec 2017 12:04pm

Why everything you’ve been told about the gender pay gap is wrong

Analysis of the pay gap among senior civil servants shows up the myths about unfair wages. 

By Alison McGovern

The government has published data on the gender pay gap in its departments. Yet data on women’s pay only gives one part of the story. It only tells us how much. It cannot tell us why.

We may know that on average – according to the Office for National Statistics figures published for 2017 – the civil service pays women just under 13 per cent less than men. But we don’t know why. You can look at the numbers on a spreadsheet. You cannot account for the rationale in a person’s head when they make a hiring decision.

Too often, though, data is reported as just a headline figure. The gender pay gap gets a lot of media attention, but the deluge of data confuses the issue. Oversimplified accounts purporting to be explanations are helpfully written in opinion pieces, obfuscating the story even more. Some don’t want to delve into the difficult world of their own bias – that’s why when it comes to the pay gap we need more women in data.

This is not helped by a seeming obfuscation in the government data itself. On the one hand, the figures published department by department tell a common story: more men at senior levels mean there is a gap in overall pay. On the other hand, the departments themselves have not released a detailed breakdown of the grade by grade employment numbers and pay gap in each department in order that we might see this clearly.

However, by using the ONS data, which does include a breakdown, we can piece together a picture. 

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Conventional wisdom has it that there just aren’t enough women around at the top level. The reasoning goes that women pick the wrong subjects at school. This limits the supply of women. This means that there aren’t enough women in the so-called “pipeline” coming through, which means women can’t get promoted. According to this reasoning, the pay gap is really due to the choices women make. They limit their own ambitions.

Unfortunately for the purveyors of this bullshit, however, the data release from the ONS knocks a hole right through these arguments that – even if well intended – blame women for the gap in their pay.

We still don’t know everything.

But let’s look at what we do know.

Is the gender pay gap explained by men being more senior than women?

The most well-paid civil servants are those in the “senior civil service” These are the top-paid officials in central government, and their pay ranges from £60,000 a year to £208,000.

The claim that there are fewer women than men at a higher level has been used to explain the overall pay disparity. The Department for Transport itself blamed much of its own 17 per cent reported gap on having too many men at the top level, bringing the average pay for women down as a result.

This is said with seeming regret. But I wonder if it is just an excuse.

In the senior civil service across government there are 3,000 men and 2,100 women. While it is not a perfectly even split, it is hard to argue that women are radically underrepresented at the very top. And looking at those agencies and departments that have the worst pay gap among their senior civil servants, the lack of women being the cause is far from obvious. It might be part of the problem, but it is far from the whole answer.

The worst offenders do have a relatively small number of women and men in the senior civil service. With five to ten men and five to ten women in the top grade of public officials, the Land Registry (17 per cent difference in median pay), the Legal Aid Agency (21 per cent), and National Savings and Investments (25 per cent) all manage a sizable gap between their pay for top women and pay for top men.

The Department for Work and Pensions is typical of a department with a larger senior civil service staff count, comprising of roughly 120 men and 40 women. Yet the department still manages to pay women on average 8.4 per cent less than men. Plenty of jobs at this level, plenty of chance for promotion, but still a pay gap. Imagine working so hard to get to the top of the tree, only to find that you get paid less than your male colleagues. It’s not good. 

Is it the so-called “pipeline”?

The second excuse often given by public and private sector alike is the so-called “pipeline” problem. Apparently, there are a lack of women in more junior roles, so they never build up the experience to get promoted. 

But this does not ring true if you look at the detail of the data produced by the ONS. Women who reach the Senior Civil Service have already overcome the obstacles put in their way. While the overall gender pay gap figure might be vulnerable to this “pipeline” argument, I think it is fairly offensive to those who have reached the highest heights in their profession, having overcome many barriers, and are still paid less than their male counterpart for it. 

And the worst offenders do have a substantial gap. What is the justification for the 25 per cent gap between top paid women and top paid men in the worst offending part of government? When women who reach the top are earning less, we can no longer blame the barriers they have faced to get there.

And then look at the number of women reaching grade 6 or 7, the rung below the Senior Civil Service, and the foothold necessary for a bigger job in government. There are about 18,000 women in such roles compared to 22,000 men. Not exactly even, but balanced. Those hiring top-flight civil servants have a great deal of choice should they wish to provide them with leadership training and promote them. The challenge is clearly not a lack of women, or a lack of women seeking promotion.

Is it that women don’t do finance jobs?

The standard excuse given for the lack of women in top-paid jobs is the (circular) argument that jobs men typically do attract better pay. If women choose to work in fields like childcare rather than manufacturing, then they should not wonder why they are paid less. We do need to address this issue in schools and from an early age, by breaking down gender stereotypes and encouraging young girls and women to pursue subjects and careers in science and technology in the same way we do for boys.

However, while this may be true for wider British society, in the civil service this argument fails. On these figures, the financial departments come out pretty well. There is a split of 60 men in the top ranked Treasury officials and 40 women, but the pay gap between them is just 0.9 per cent. Likewise, HM Revenue and Customs has many more senior civil servants – 200 men and 150 women – and their pay gap at this level is 5 per cent.

Undoubtedly the private sector has a worse gender pay gap. And the civil servant pay gap appears to be worse in departments where they might reasonably be expected to recruit from the private sector, which might account for the 25 per cent gap at the top of National Savings and Investment. But the evidence is that we have a large number of women doing senior jobs in technical departments. And in a department that you might expect to be dominated by women at the top – the Department for Education – it is surprising that their senior civil service pay gap is slightly worse than HMRC at 5.1 per cent across the 60 men and 90 women in those roles.

It might be easy to say that the problem is that girls don’t do maths. But if you look at the actual numbers, that’s a lie.

Or it is just bias?

The more you unpick these numbers – and there will be much more unpicking as we get more numbers – the more the excuses seem to fade.

While it is definitely true that numerical equality at the highest level has not been achieved, and women outnumber men at some of the junior levels, it is also not that simple. There seems to be a reluctance to look past the evidence in favour of the easy excuse.

It is much harder to accept that when women succeed, they are still paid less when they get there. Having looked through the numbers, and seen that there are women gaining experience through the most senior levels of government, I cannot understand why.

Perhaps, it really is just bias.

And that means sexism in the minds of people hiring our top civil servants. Perhaps, if we look closely at the data, we might identify a training need.

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