"Paying women equally would cripple our economy"

The brutal fact: underpaid women sustain British business, says HR chief Helen Jamieson.

by Helen Jamieson
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Another week, another report into the staggering disparity between men and women in the workplace.

We started the year with BBC talent Samira Ahmed winning her fair pay battle as it was revealed that male colleague Jeremy Vine had been paid six times more for the same work. We were told that female GPs are being paid £40k less than their male counterparts. And, this week, the Fawcett Society’s 2020 Sex and Power Index showed that "women are still missing in significant numbers from top jobs in politics, the law, civil service, trade unions, charities, professional bodies and sport bodies".

The report revealed that women make up just over one in 20 CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. This remains unchanged since the Society’s last report in 2018. None of these CEOs are women of colour.

The days of having to argue for women's place at work – and fair pay for that  – should be over, so why does such disparity continue and how can we remedy it?

The Fawcett Society has a few ideas. It calls on government to increase the breadth of gender pay gap reporting by reducing the threshold to businesses with 100+ employees (a reduction from 250). Employers not captured by pay gap regulations would be encouraged to voluntarily make data available. It also calls more generally for the government and the Office for National Statistics to focus on delivering "more data".

The problem with this approach is twofold. Firstly, driving reporting thresholds down to encompass smaller businesses is irrelevant if what we’re identifying is a lack of progress in the largest, most senior roles in the UK. And, for small businesses, the task will land on already heavily admin-burdened outfits.

The stick approach – forcing publication of gender-gap data  – ends up being more about damage limitation than systemic change. No-one is likely to learn anything or change their minds. We see a lot of "wriggling and squiggling" going on to see how figures can best be presented (ie manipulated).

We must also accept that knowledge of this issue, and the data illustrating it, isn’t the problem: there’s plenty to prove the issue exists and I wonder if we are collectively suffering data fatigue. If we want change, we have to identify the root cause of our incredibly slow progress. 

Will men accept less?

So far, we have failed to consider pure economics.

No-one has ever asked the question: "If we truly had equal pay and a level playing field in the UK, could our economy cope?" In my view, most businesses would go under or face such a dramatic drop in profitability that investors would withdraw at dangerous speeds. The brutal fact: underpaid women currently sustain our organisations.

Take Gary Lineker. The footballer-turned-TV-presenter had his £1.75m salary cut last year after the BBC's gender pay gap was exposed – and he's now reportedly jumping ship to ITV. The BBC, like many wider businesses, can’t afford to pay women at the same staggering rates as men. We continue to put pressure on businesses to round everything up and that’s just not economically viable.

Consider the disastrous economic consequences if we harmonised up the pay of nurses, teachers and carers (female-dominated sectors all carrying significant responsibilities) to the average pay level of train drivers. That would be like doubling the salaries of millions of women in the UK currently on about £25,000 (average salary of nurses) to £54,000 (average salary of train drivers). The country would go into economic meltdown.

There needs to be a compromise, with men agreeing to accept less to be able to pay women more. But will men be prepared to step aside and accept less? It’s going to be a challenge. Many men still don’t understand, recognise and acknowledge basic, everyday sexism and the experiences of women in the workplace. When sexism is called out, women are often accused of being hypersensitive, overly emotional or naive. 

No more reports, snapshots or one-hour diversity courses. It's time for proper in-depth education, starting at the top. We need to admit that data isn’t doing the job, accept hard truths, approach the whole inclusion piece from a different direction and encourage male leaders to push for progress. Equality for women is progress for all.  

Helen Jamieson is the founder and MD of Jaluch HR.

We will be showcasing the country’s remarkable, talented, visionary and ground-breaking businesswomen of all ages, at every level and across all sectors, and those companies and colleagues that are helping them to succeed. Enter the Inspiring Women in Business Awards here.

Image credit: Barcroft Media/Getty Images


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