by Meghan Lewis
In the same week that Ramesh Ponnuru, Senior Editor for the National Review, said that “The pay gap is exaggerated, discrimination doesn’t drive it and it’s not clear that government can eliminate it – or should even try,” a friend of mine found out that she was being paid less than her male colleague who did exactly the same job.
The UK Parliament’s Equal Pay Act 1970 makes it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, and there is a widespread belief that this legislation has eliminated unequal pay. Yet this is far from the truth. Over forty years after this legislation was introduced, women in the UK are still paid on average 20 percent less than their male counterparts.
While the practice is widely publicised in the finance sector, where men are paid up to 55 percent more than women, many still believe that women working in charities are getting a fairer deal. Research from Third Sector Research Centre in 2010 found that while the pay gap is less extreme, women employed in the third sector are still paid on average 16 percent less than their male colleagues.
Experts believe there are a variety of reasons why women are paid less than men. Outdated gender norms undervalue women in the workplace. The Fawcett Society points out that jobs traditionally carried out by women, such as catering, cleaning and caretaking, have lower wages than construction and transportation, jobs traditionally carried out by men.
Although companies and employers may not intentionally pay their female employees less than male employees, there are indirect factors that can contribute to wage disparities. A key stage of recruitment where women are at risk of receiving lower salaries is during salary negotiation. A recent study showed that 57 percent of men negotiate their first salary as opposed to just 7 percent of women.
Why is it that women seem less likely to push for higher salaries than men? Some believe that women are simply less assertive at this stage of recruitment, which implies that we can only blame ourselves for lower wages. However, if we look at this occurrence in the context of a patriarchal society, it may be that male privilege and entitlement are at the root of the problem.
Ellen Bravo, US activist for working women and author of “Taking on the Big Boys,” tells me, “Studies show men do ask for more – and get it in salary negotiations.” She adds, “Key steps [for women] are to be well-informed about what jobs in this area are paying, able to make a case based on your skills and experience, and thoroughly prepped by practicing with friends.”
Of the role of self-confidence in salary negotiation, Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, says, “Men attribute their success to themselves and women attribute it to other external factors.”
In the past, girls were taught from an early age to concentrate on housekeeping and child rearing, while boys were taught to think about careers. Sadly, these gendered roles still exist for many girls and boys. This disparity in expectations may result in men feeling a sense of entitlement, while women are reluctant to aim too high.
It is crucial to highlight that it is not just women who are disadvantaged by pay gaps. Patriarchal systems in Western societies are set up to favour white, cisgender, middle-class, and able-bodied men. Men who do not fit into this mould are often paid less than those who do. The Institute for Social Economic Research (2008) claims that men from certain ethnic minorities are likely to be paid less than white British men. For example, Bangladeshi men are paid on average 21 percent less. Likewise, Muslim men receive around 17 percent less pay than Christian men, and disabled men are paid 11 percent less than non-disabled men.
One reason why pay gaps are underreported is that people simply do not realise they are getting an unfair deal. Employers often include clauses on pay secrecy in employee contracts, which prevent colleagues from discussing salaries. This practice enables employers to discreetly pay some employees more than others.
The Equality Act 2010 took steps to redress this, protecting employees who disclose salaries or ask for details of their colleagues’ salaries in order to establish whether there is a pay gap based on protected characteristics. This means that women have the right to inquire about their male colleagues’ salaries if they suspect they are being paid less. Although this legislation moves toward pay equality, it is not widely publicised and many people are unaware of their rights to salary information.
Women who discover that they are being paid less than their male colleagues are often reluctant to take action and challenge their employers. Fear of consequences such as dismissal or upsetting workplace relationships means that many women simply accept unequal pay. This concession reinforces gender stereotypes and contributes to a cycle of oppression within the workplace.
Think, Act, Report is a government initiative that encourages organisations to close the gender pay gap by increasing wage transparency and workforce composition on a voluntary basis. The Equality Act 2010 includes provisions that would require big businesses to establish whether they have a gender pay gap and publish the findings. This is a positive move toward achieving equal pay, but the requirement is currently up in the air as the coalition government reviews it.
Changes in legislation are crucial in achieving pay equality, but the power of individual and collective action must not be underestimated. Women have the legal right to research pay equality in their place of work. This awareness is the first step to addressing any existing pay imbalance and enables women to identify and challenge areas of inequality.
Women who suspect they are being underpaid due to their gender do not need to act alone. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a helpline for women and men who feel they are being paid less due to a protected characteristic. They offer impartial support and advice for individuals and employers wishing to challenge such inequality. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau also offers face-to-face advice about workplace discrimination.
Bravo suggests that, though joining a union is not an option for many women, solidarity can lead to successful action. She says, “The best way to get what you need for yourself is to work with others on behalf of everyone…Standing together with even a few co-workers makes it more difficult for employers to retaliate and more likely that women will be heard.”
Legislation is making headway to counteract pay imbalance, but there is still a long way to go. It is important that workers, both male and female, challenge disadvantages within the system and promote a culture of equality. With consistent opposition to sexism in the workplace, from “harmless” office banter to explicit stereotyping and discrimination, the culture will slowly change to allow for a future in which women and men can live and work as equals.
About the author:
Meghan Lewis works for a youth project supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and unsure young people. She has been a key actor in the formation of Cambodia’s first LGBT group, Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), a group of local and international LGBT volunteers working together towards a future free from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. She has published articles based on sexual orientation and gender in DIVA magazine and was long-listed for The Guardian International Development Journalism 2012 competition.
Meghan was born in South Africa and grew up in Kwa-Zulu Natal before moving to the UK in 1997. She studied Education at the University of Brighton and lived in rural and urban Cambodia from 2008-2011. Throughout her personal, academic and professional life, her primary passion has been to try to reduce the inequalities in society and work towards a future where opportunities are accessible to all people regardless of ethnicity, economics, gender or sexuality.