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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.

By Caroline Criado-Perez

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.

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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.

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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?