Gender pay gap - catching up with history

Written by Tom Freeman on 5 June 2019 in Inside Politics

Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, women still have to fight for equality and opportunities

Women equal pay strike - PA/Holyrood

Last year, Iceland boasted it was the first nation to enforce equal pay between men and women. The new law means every firm with 25 or more staff must now have a certificate showing they pay people in equivalent roles equally – no matter what their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.

The move went viral on social networks round the world. It is still being shared on Facebook months later.

But what those applauding Iceland here might not realise is that it already exists in the UK. In fact, the UK committed to equal pay 48 years earlier than Iceland, it’s just that successive governments have failed to enforce it.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 came after a Labour manifesto pledge to provide “the right for equal pay for equal work”, and this was enthusiastically supported by trade unions.

But as shown by the 12-year legal battle with Glasgow City Council that was resolved in January, women continue to have to fight for the right to be paid as much as men, even today.

Some 8,000 women across the city went on strike in October to force the council’s hand. It was the biggest equal pay strike in the UK so far.

The SNP had been elected to take control of Glasgow on a manifesto commitment to settle the claims, but campaigners accused the new administration of failing to properly engage in the process.

After the agreement, Stefan Cross, a lawyer from Action 4 Equality, which represented 8,000 of the claimants, said: “Neither side has got everything it wanted and both sides have made serious concessions so that we can both be satisfied that this is a fair deal.”

With Glasgow City Council facing a bill  of between £500m and £1bn to settle the claims, at a time when council budgets are stretched like never before, local authorities and other public sector employers across the UK have been forced to take note. 

However, while the gains in the public sector are significant and may help future-proof jobs from an equality perspective, the private sector is harder to police.

For example, discretionary payments are much more widespread in the private sector, and these tend to be paid to men. 

Meanwhile, public sector employers are far more likely to have conducted an equal pay review. 

There is some evidence that private employers will face similar challenges, however.

In 2014, supermarket giant Asda lost an appeal in the first stage of an ongoing case brought by shop floor workers to get paid as much as their mostly male warehouse staff. The decision confirmed that both jobs were engaged on common terms and conditions, and Asda is set to appeal it before it proceeds to the full equal pay claim.

Similar litigation with other big supermarkets followed, and this year will see separate tribunal cases on the issue of equal pay which involve Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

In a legal update, law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn said: “If the claimants are ultimately successful, it could lead to an increase in private sector equal pay claims, as was seen in the public sector and local authority claims. Large employers, and particularly those who have groups of workers across retail and distribution (or other areas where the roles can typically be gendered), will be watching the developments with interest.”

Equal pay, where women with the same or very similar roles as men are paid the same amount, is an obvious legal question, and one which has proved more complicated to achieve than perhaps it should. The onus remains on the women to pursue a claim, rather than on the employer to ensure it pays equally.

The gender pay gap, however, is more than just equal pay. It is a far more wide-reaching problem, reflecting the difference in average hourly rate of all men and women across a whole workforce, a pattern where men remain far more likely to hold higher-paid positions, gain promotion and get bonuses.

In 2017, the UK Government forced all firms with over 250 employees to publish full data on their gender pay gap. In her resignation speech last month, Theresa May said this had been designed to “shine the light on inequality so it has nowhere to hide”.

That light shows a 15 per cent gap between men and women in Scotland.

This year was the second year of such reporting, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission calling out three companies who had not provided the data for a second year in a row. Typhoo Tea, Charlotte Tilbury Beauty and Northern Automotive Systems were named and shamed as the repeat offenders.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s chief executive, said: “To tackle gender inequality in the workplace, we first need transparency. All employers with 250 or more employees have to publish their gender pay gap information where everyone can see it. It’s the law and we take very seriously indeed any failure to do so, particularly for two years in a row. 

“These employers are not only facing investigations by the regulator, they are sending a message to their staff that they don’t care about equality and are exposing themselves to serious reputational damage.”

According to Close the Gap, the Scottish women’s labour market advocacy charity, the reporting process has had the opposite effect to that intended, with equal pay and discriminatory pay practice “increasingly invisible”, especially when firms are not compelled to act on the findings.

Looking at the reports from 200 Scottish companies, Close the Gap found less than a third had included any kind of narrative alongside their pay gap figures, less than a fifth had included any actions to address it and only five per cent had listed targets for change. 

Only two employers mentioned tackling equal pay.

The charity’s executive director, Anna Ritchie Allan, tells Holyrood it showed “widespread complacency” among employers, most of which think they already pay people fairly.

“The evidence shows employers won’t do anything unless you make it a legal requirement,” she says.

“The gender pay gap is just an indicator of not only women’s experience in employment but also in education, in skills acquisition, training, in caring roles and other domestic labour they undertake.”

So, while firms pay close attention to equal pay, the wider gender pay gap is a symptom of something bigger that straddles a lot of different policy domains. 

The duty for policymakers, then, is to address the underlying culture which not only underpins unequal pay, but also prevents women and girls achieving highly paid positions in the first place. 

Traditionally female-led professions still pay less, and even they provide an easier career ladder for men. For example, male nurses tend to be paid more than women as they move up the scale more quickly.

At the bottom end of pay scales, while the Scottish Government has promoted the real living wage through public sector agencies, it has been much harder to get private companies to commit to it, and two-thirds of the workers who earn less than the living wage are women.

In March the Scottish Government published the gender pay gap action plan, setting out a list of actions to address the many drivers identified as contributing to the problem. 

By the end of the current parliamentary term, it said, the gap could be closed by “promoting gender equality within early learning, schools, colleges, universities, employability programmes, the labour market, businesses, and social security”.

Stereotyping and sexual harassment at all levels contribute to putting women off, the document acknowledged. 

These cultural barriers to women in work are only beginning to be understood.

In a survey by Zero Tolerance in 2017, 70 per cent of women in Scotland reported they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at work.  

Close the Gap is piloting an employee accreditation programme at seven Scottish councils which focuses on both gender equality at work and violence against women.

‘Equally Safe at Work’, which is to be rolled out as part of the ‘Equally Safe’ action plan, contains standards on leadership, the use of data, flexible working, occupational segregation, culture and violence against women. Employers can work up from bronze to gold tiers of accreditation. 

The inclusion of violence against women and what employers can do to prevent violence against women “both in the workplace and out”, is key, according to Ritchie Allan. 

“What we’d like to see is initiatives that address occupational segregation, not just getting more women into senior positions,” she says.

The value placed on the jobs women do will be a deciding factor in this. 

“The systematic undervaluing of women’s work – home care workers, cleaning, caterers – and also the way individual women and groups of women are undervalued in their own workplaces. Perhaps they are getting less pay than male colleagues, but also, their contributions in meetings, their skills are overlooked. That notion of value is really, really important.”

As part of this recognition of value, Close the Gap is advocating that the care sector should be designated as a growth sector for the economy.

“We’ve never had a female-dominated sector such as care have quite as much investment, planning and policy focus,” says Ritchie Allan. “Capital infrastructure, like building bridges and motorways, ultimately, it is men’s jobs which benefit from a lot of that spend.” 

Indeed, as reported by Holyrood last month, the capital work for upgrading and expanding the early learning infrastructure as part of the flagship policy of childcare expansion is falling behind schedule. 

A recent answer to a written question by the Scottish Conservatives revealed only 97 nurseries have been built, expanded or refurbished against a target of 750 nurseries by 2021.

It could be said Scotland’s economy still works under a model designed before women were active in the labour market. The world of work itself has not caught up with the fact women are what Adam Smith called “self-motivated economic actors”. 

All the most famous economists whose philosophy underpins today’s western economies, from Smith to Marx to Keynes, took for granted the half of the population who worked without pay, overtime or the ability to take sick days.

For centuries, economic orthodoxy on both the left and right omitted to show childcare and domestic work on GDP and productivity reports.

But since women took up jobs during the Second World War, their number in the labour market has steadily increased. Now a sustainable family income looks to have two breadwinners.

However, from infrastructure spend to individual workplaces, there is a lot of catching up still to do. 

The most obvious example is that having children still has an impact on women’s prospects in the workplace.

The factors are connected, according to Susan Anderson, Head of Infrastructure Support Services at Network Rail.

Anderson told a recent International Women’s Day event: “We are moving to a very exciting time in history where the world now ‘expects’ gender balance. And now, in 2019, we can all continue to play a critical role in helping forge a more gender-balanced world.”

While on maternity leave, Anderson’s boss tried to restructure her team because he thought she wouldn’t be able to combine being a mother with a senior role, she said.

“Sadly, I am not unique to have encountered such bias and ignorance in my career. My skin has hardened over time – though it should not have had to – and I am concerned that what once struck me as startling, I now accept.  

“The challenge for all of us is to continue to seek balance for better, which will make our workplace better as a result and create an environment that our children can feel welcome and thrive in.”

What is less clearly laid out in the gender pay gap strategy is how schools will address the stereotyping and gendered culture which prevents girls fulfilling their potential, with a marked gap in the early teenage years between the number of girls performing well at science, technology and mathematics and those who go on to actually take STEM subjects and pursue it as a career.

Ritchie Allan says the culture shift requires “leadership”. While that must come from the top of government, she says, “gender norms and stereotyping starts from birth”.

By early years settings, gender norms are already a “big problem”, she adds, partly because of how diverse the provision is. 

“Our particular concern is there is no strategic mechanism for professional learning to build capacity in early years workers on gender.”

At the other end of women’s careers, as the working population gets older, more women are still working when they experience the menopause. With a 5.5 per cent increase in the employment rate of women between 50-64 in the last decade, the STUC Women’s Committee commissioned a survey which found that over half were experiencing the menopause. Nearly two-thirds said it had been treated as a joke at work.

The committee has called for employers to introduce “reasonable adjustments” when it comes to performance and attendance reviews or opportunities for promotion to take into account increased sick days, irregular sleep patterns and ‘brain fog’. 

In a recent Holyrood debate on the menopause, equalities minister Christina McKelvie said the Scottish Government had updated the Scottish business pledge to encourage employers to address the issues.

“It is clear that the menopause can be one of the contributing factors to women’s lack of progression and career choices, based on their need to manage their health – both mental and physical,” she said.

“We are committed to working closely with women’s organisations and trade unions to gain a clearer picture of the issues involved in order to identify other areas where action needs to be taken.”

A reminder, of course, that women are not a homogenous group, and an intersectional approach is needed to address inequalities wherever they persist. BME women, disabled women and LBT women all face additional challenges in the workplace.

“The solutions to those particular inequalities and discrimination are different,” says Ritchie Allan. “What we’ve found is employers are light years away from taking an intersectional approach.”

It can only be hoped that those light years move more quickly than the last 50. 

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