Mind the gender pay gap with a four-day week

Since 2017, companies with more than 250 employees have been obliged to complete a gender pay gap report to establish the fairness in the distribution of wages within their companies and the UK.  Whilst this should be interpreted positively, as at least an acknowledgement of the giant white elephant in many workplaces, it potentially exposes more socioeconomic issues than the data alone aims to address.  

The data itself shows that wage distribution is skewed towards male workers and that, in general, medium and large companies have a gender pay gap of around 30%. This is quite a staggering figure considering that the 1970 Equal Pay Act prohibits companies from paying males and females differently for doing the same job. Even more amazing is how this information has not sparked countrywide strikes, demonstrations and government overthrow. On the face of it, it should.  

Perhaps one reason is that it is difficult to work out how to interpret the results.  It becomes even more confusing given that the data focuses on work positions in general, rather than comparative positions and therefore rules out the possibility to simply tell companies to comply with the law and bring payment in-line between the sexes. At the very time when a healthy dose of mansplaining of the results is necessary, very few have stepped forward.

What we can tell immediately from the data is that, on the whole, women earn less than men as an undisputed fact. Whilst this is helpful to have in hard figures, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Digging deeper, it is the information which the data fails to highlight that makes it fascinating, and opens a much larger debate than any single, non-discrimination law could address.    

Weaknesses in the pay gap results

One glaring frailty of the pay gap results is that it does not distinguish between full and part-time working which could equate for a gender pay gap. Recent surveys point to four in ten women and only one in eight men as working part-time. Since part-time work is generally paid less, this would have an obvious impact on average earnings.

The question this frailty raises is less about the hourly pay rate for the traditional working week against a more flexible approach, but why the majority of the part-time workforce is female. This is to say, rather than simply being the lazier sex, women seem to have genuinely less time to work full-time alongside their unremunerated work at home.

The expectation that women bear the professional brunt of having a family, with reduced working hours and lower pay as a result, raises further questions of the kind of working world we have created. Sure, most women take a post childbirth break and many justifiably choose to spend more time with their children in the subsequent months or years, but what really motivates this decision and why have we not adapted to the not-so-recent phenomena of childbirth?

Maternity leave as a key contributor

One answer could be the accepted norm of maternity leave. As the largest contributor to female absence from work, statutory 6.5-month maternity leave is paid at the full rate to women whilst UK men are typically allowed 1-2 weeks paternity leave with any extension being paid at significantly less than their full working rate. It could be argued that, in the UK at least, women are incentivised to become the reduced-hours primary caregiver whilst father’s rarely experience more than a summer holiday-length disruption to their careers.

The outcome of this is two-fold; men continue to maintain the full-time, promotion-on-attendance working standard and women fall in to the category of working in the grey area of part-time which does not provide enough office time to justify a promotion or pay rise. It goes without saying that this fosters an outcome of higher wages for men and the subjugation of the value of women’s work in the name of flexibility.

In several Scandinavian countries this situation is already being addressed by enforcing flexible working schedules and encouraging a seismic shift in attitudes towards closing the gender pay gap. In Iceland, for example, a 9-month period of post-partum leave is encouraged with three months of this to be used by each partner. This normalizes time out of the office for both men and women and also supports the majority view amongst millennial fathers that childcare should be shared equally. It also forces companies in to the harsh reality that they might also lose their men for more than 3 months which quashes the patriarchal model and wreaks havoc with the bonuses and promotions.

Indeed, in the countries where this kind of shared responsibility is enjoyed, an increasing number of men are choosing to stay at home beyond their allotted paternity leave with many women instead returning to working closer to full-time. Alternate models of working flexibly between couples are also emerging and threaten to shut down the traditional pay-gap excuse that part-time working is sex-specific.

A more complex reason why men and women earn differently

Once we get over the part-time distortion of the gender pay gap data results another debate emerges which would take a more profound cultural shift to reconcile than those social norms being challenged in Scandinavia.

Although it is clear that women generally earn less across almost all UK companies, these results do not necessarily show that women are being discriminated against or that companies prefer to pay men more for their work. The assumption could be that the data is a reflection of the reality of the different positions that men and women hold which influence their pay grades. To put it another way, men dominate the highest paid professions and therefore will obviously receive higher pay.

Inequality of pay in terms of the domination by a single sex in some professions goes beyond office walls and questions the core of our education system as well as how we generate the identities in young people. The use of the fact that there are less women working as lawyers, pilots and executives and more as cleaners and cabin crew to justify the pay gap shows a massive failure somewhere along the line. If this justification is accepted then inequality begins from how we develop gender identities and expectations in schools, universities and, most prominently, in the home.

We know that the opportunity exists and that women can become top lawyers, pilots and executives but, if an average is a norm, they don’t. If the top-paying professions are really dominated by men then where does the glass ceiling start that prevents the other 50% of the population to consider moving beyond this? Discrimination is not at play in creating inequality here, more perhaps how the maintaining of a traditional, gendered development system influences perspectives towards and between women and girls. To say that our own working culture has harvested a workforce which reinforces the pay difference between the sexes may well be the most useful interpretation of the gender pay gap results.