Gender pay gap: be bold, but be realistic

Pay transparency and high level resignations create short-term pressure, but change needs to be sustainable.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 08 Jan 2018

Women shouldn’t have to resign in protest against unequal pay. But occasionally, as in the case of the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie, it can make a difference.

Gracie recently announced she was quitting her role, though not her employer, over substantial pay discrepancies between its top male and female foreign editors. As a journalist, she understands that the battle for gender pay equality is in part being fought on the field of publicity (and, in the BBC’s case, politics), and knows this will have her employer’s PR team coming out in hives.

Her resignation, and the recurrent negative headlines around mandatory gender pay gap reporting, illustrate the power of pay transparency. When you see that certain employers pay men 40% or 50% more than women, it stokes our sense of injustice, and puts pressure on those employers. It leaves nowhere to hide.

This pressure is welcome, but transparency doesn’t come without problems. For a start, it could inadvertently exacerbate inequality in certain companies and sectors: after all, it’s not unreasonable to expect that people might be put off working for a firm once they’ve discovered it systematically underpays their entire gender.

More importantly, it tends to reduce the complex causes of the gender pay gap into one uncomfortably simple number. The danger there is that it implies there is an equally simple solution: just pay women the same as men, right?

It should be that simple, but sadly it isn’t. The main reason men are paid more on average than women for full time work is that men occupy more senior positions (though this doesn’t seem to be the case with Gracie at the BBC). This reflects current and historic biases against women, whether structural, unconscious or explicit.

'Cultural assumptions stereotyping women as less willing or able and historical patterns reflecting men’s social power explain the persistent undervaluation of women’s work,' says Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at Warwick Business School.

'Behavioural ethics research suggests that many such assumptions are due to unconscious bias that both women and men share... unconscious bias can, in part, explain the propensity of many executives to hire in their own image which reproduces the lack of diversity on companies’ boards.'

A long term solution

In any case, it’s not a problem that can be solved quickly. Senior people need experience as well as talent, and experience by definition takes time.

You can’t expect the current negative publicity over the gender pay gap to solve this problem. It won’t last. The more we hear that women are chronically underpaid, the more we’ll get outrage fatigue about a problem that cannot be fixed fast. And if employers see this as a short-term PR issue, their solutions are more likely to be superficial.

This is not an excuse to give up or drag our heels. Instead, we should recognise that long-term problems need long-term solutions. Alongside equal pay for equal work (which is a no brainer, not to mention a legal requirement), employers should, of course, firmly commit to equal opportunities for progression. And like all good commitments, this should come with ambitious but realistic targets against which progress can be measured.

Saying the seniority and pay gaps should be closed within three years is sadly not realistic for most industries – we’re just too far away. But saying they should be closed in 15 years, that’s a different story.

It may sound unreasonably far in the future, but such a long-term target allows employers to address fundamental issues, for example by encouraging flexible working and returnships to counteract the motherhood career penalty. It may be that they’d choose to impose quotas for various stages in their talent pipelines, introduce name-blind recruitment and training to counteract unconsious bias or focus more on targeting female students for their grad programmes. This is what businesses are good at – finding strategies to achieve objectives, then executing them.

Now is as good a time as any to make this commitment, but it shouldn’t be done for publicity’s sake - it should be done because it's the right thing to do morally and for the business. Many employers already have proactive plans in place against measurable, long-term targets, but they’ll never be flashy enough to win headlines, and nor should they be. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Only by accepting the scale and nature of the problem will it ever actually get fixed.


What’s your take? Here the take from some of the speakers from MT’s latest Inspiring Women in Business Conference, including entrepreneurs Prue Leith and Stella Duffy.

Image credit: krungchingpixs/Shutterstock

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