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14 November 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:27am

Labour is on the right path to eliminating the gender pay gap

Though naysayers doubt the usefulness of the concept, Labour plans to eradicate gender pay disparity by 2030.

By Ailbhe Rea

Happy Equal Pay Day! The 14 November is the symbolic point from which women effectively work for free for the rest of the year: a novel way of highlighting that women in the UK earn an average of 13.1 per cent less than men.

To mark the occasion, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have both presented plans to tackle the problem. The Liberal Democrats will oblige larger companies to publish employment statistics by gender, as well as LGBTQ+ identity and ethnicity – a shrewd acknowledgement that larger barriers to fair employment exist than gender alone (black African women earn on average 20 per cent less than white men, for example). 

Labour, meanwhile, has pledged to eliminate the gender pay gap by 2030, to establish an agency with the power to fine companies that don’t declare their gender pay gap statistics, and to expand this requirement to all companies with over 50 employees (it currently applies only to those with more than 250 employees). 

The gender pay gap has been the focus of government policy for over a decade. A level of scepticism prevails around the concept, and an unspoken, implicit doubt as to whether the gap is something that ever could be resolved through policy alone.

Equal pay for equal work has been mandated by UK law since 1970. But the gender pay gap isn’t about illegal gender pay discrimination. Instead, it’s a story of economic barriers and biases that converge to ensure women have lower average earnings than men.

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Those who dispute the need to tackle the disparity argue the average gap in earnings only becomes pronounced when women are over 40, because women who have children are asserting their right to choose to either leave the workforce or reduce their hours. The implied message here is that if women are earning less, it’s because of their personal choices to focus on their families. It’s nature, baby!

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Of course, there are other factors influencing this trend beyond individual choice. The staggering cost of childcare means some women decide to leave the workforce altogether, rather than spend up to two thirds of their salary on childcare. Inflexible work practices force some women with children into working part-time, instead of working flexibly full-time. 

But some factors are less easy to determine, and have more to do with the reality that society treats women differently to men in ways often unintended or unconscious. That sexism still exists, in other words, is what so many find hard to accept: in some ways, the gender pay gap is a debate about feminism itself. 

Workers in the social care industry are systematically under-paid, for example, because their labour has long been coded as “female”. There are also unconscious biases around why women struggle to rise above a certain point in their organisations, why we doubt that mothers are sufficiently committed to work after having children, for example, or why older women are particularly passed over for promotion.

At the root of the gender pay gap is a status quo that often functions to the detriment of women in the workplace. The approach that parties have taken to this problem strikes me as the right one; just as the ONS publishes the average gender pay gap, government initiatives will oblige companies to do the same. The disparity is there for all to see; the shame of publishing a particularly bad gap will hopefully force companies to act to narrow that gap, without the need for deep soul-searching about the problem. 

Both Labour and the Lib Dems have promised free childcare (for over 9 months, and ages 2-4, respectively) in a bid to help women at the point where the gender pay gap widens. The Liberal Democrats intend to make publishing pay gap statistics compulsory, while Labour would add a formal financial penalty for companies that fail to tackle the problem. 

Labour’s bundle of policy proposals tackles not just the known barriers to pay parity, like childcare, but the more nebulous biases that are difficult to measure, including tackling stigma around the menopause and lifting wages across entire sectors where women have been undervalued. On the difficult question of how to shift societal trends, this seems the right approach.