“In 2019, on average women were paid 83p for every £1 men were paid.”
This opening line from a House of Commons blog post on the gender pay gap in the UK is typical of how we tend to talk about the pay gap. It’s helpful in that it shows how great the discrepancy is. However, it makes it sound like a problem of employers deliberately not paying women as much as men.Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that.
What the Gender Pay Gap isn’t
The gender pay gap is not the same as equal pay. Equal pay is the issue of women getting paid less for doing the same work as men. It’s been illegal for 50 years now, but it still happens. Recently this was shown when the BBC had to to increase the pay of over 700 women, as they were being underpaid compared with their male colleagues.
So, what’s the gender pay gap?
The pay gap is the difference between the average pay of men and women per hour, and you can look at pay gaps on a nationwide, regional, sector, or individual business level. It’s not illegal to have a pay gap and it doesn’t take into account seniority, type of work or experience.
So is it bad to have a gender pay gap?
The pay gap isn’t just caused by discrimination is a super straightforward way, unlike equal pay. For example, airlines tend to have quite large pay gaps. That’s likely because the vast majority of pilots are male, while most cabin crew are women, and pilots are make much more than women. That’s not to say that the patriarchy isn’t at the route of all this – the reason why there’s more women in service roles, and less in well-paid professions is based in centuries of discrimination. However, it’s not as simple an employer choosing to pay a women less for the same work.
What causes the pay gap?
It’s not even as simple as what jobs women decide or feel they should take. Even in many professions which women dominate, there is still often a pay gap. For example, most school teachers are women, but male teachers are disproportionately likely to become head teachers. This might not be as simple as women being passed over for a higher paid job. It might be that a workplace offers little support for women returning to work after maternity leave, or that they are more likely to extra work that is less valued by the institution. For example, female academics tend to take on more pastoral and administrative responsibilities than their male colleagues, giving them less time to devote to their research, making them less likely to advance as quickly in their career.
One final cause is that women do a lot more unpaid work than men do – work looking after their children, cooking cleaning and other household labour. While the total amount of paid and unpaid work done by men and women is broadly similar (about 50 hours per week), women still do average 13 more hours of unpaid work per week. Because women do so much more work that isn’t for their job, as well as the other barriers mentioned above, we’re less likely to advance as quickly in our careers.
But maybe women just want to do less well paid jobs?
Maybe. But it seems quite likely that we treat work that’s done mainly by women as just less valuable than that done by men. For example Midlothian council in 2009 was shown to pay teaching assistants (mainly women) working with children with special needs half of what they paid to road workers (overwhelmingly men). Both are clearly demanding and necessary jobs, but is helping support children learn really half as worthwhile and skilled as helping make roads?
We tend to give less financial value to roles dominated by women. A classic example of this is computer programming. Being a computer programmer could be described as a traditional female job, in the sense that many of the early computer programmers were women. While today at American universities only around 17% of computer programme majors are women, in 1980 it was double that. Back then computer, being a computer programmer was seen as a quite mundane job and was low-paid. However, as the social prestige and earnings of programmers have risen, the number of women going into it has declined.
While the core skills of being a programmer haven’t really changed, it is now often seen as an almost inherently male job. These expectations of who should be going into certain professions influence women’s choices in subtle ways, as well as the choices of their employers, teachers and advisors. These build up over years to produce the huge disparities both in who we pay more and what work we see as truly valuable.
Is it just between men and women?
No – while most of our discussion about the pay gap focuses on gender, it’s not as simple as that. There’s a pay gap between gay men and straight men for example (although gay men on average still earn more than women). A lesbian couple can be thought of as being hit twice by the pay gap, because as a financial unit it is likely that two women will be earning less than a man and a woman. There is also a significant racial pay gap in the UK.
The pay gap isn’t a single issue – it’s a symptom of far wider issues of how marginalised peoples interact with the economy. The economy is made to work best for white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class men. It’s going to take an awful lot of work to overcome that.
Read more about equality on our blog page.