The politics of pay rises

A recent call for girls to be taught how to argue for a pay rise may be a good thing, but is it about learning more confidence or, rather, understanding what undermines it in the first place?

Fair Pay


Last week may seem an age away in the midst of current events in politics, but just a few days ago Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said that girls should be equipped at school with the skills to ask for a pay rise in the workplace and accept nothing less than salary equality. She told a conference of headteachers that girls and young women must learn to be “financially independent and clear about their own worth”.

It sounds like a good thing, although it assumes that women are not asking for pay rises now and the research is mixed on this. Over the years, I’ve read numerous reports that say women don’t tend to ask for pay rises as much as men and also studies that say they do, but they just don’t get them.

It all comes down to where the problem lies. Is it women/girls being too lacking in self esteem and self worth – and why, one wonders – or is it that employers are still biased against them no matter what they do? It’s an important distinction because therein lies any solution. The reality is likely to be that it is a combination of the two, with the latter driving the former. And yet girls are stretching ahead of boys at school in most subjects…

In her new book, Equal, former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie talks about equal pay and her own experience of finding out that she was paid nearly half what a male colleague doing a similar job got, despite being promised that she would be paid equally. She recounts how some people blamed women for the pay gap between top female journalists like her and their male counterparts. She cites, for instance, Sir Philip Hampton, who co-chairs the government review into getting more women into senior business roles, saying: “How has this situation arisen at the BBC that these intelligent, high-powered, sometimes formidable women have sat in this situation? They are all looking at each other now saying: ‘How did we let this happen?’ I suspect they let it happen because they weren’t doing much about it.”

As Gracie points out, however, “women can’t correct what they can’t see”. Pay transparency is vital.

Nevertheless, while it should be the employers who change, who face up to the bias in their systems, who make their reward systems more transparent, who look at whether these tend to reward confidence over ability, who challenge the way things have been done and why, workplace politics are complicated things and clearly the more disadvantaged you are by the system the more you need to understand the rules of the game. Anyone who has struggled with office politics, who falls into a group that gets sidelined, overlooked or undervalued, will know office politics much, much better than those who benefit from the status quo because they live it every single day. Understanding office politics and making it work for you are two different things though. The temptation when you come up against systemic bias is to turn things in on yourself or to seek alternative employment, where you can, often leading to a substantial pay drop.

So by all means teach girls – and boys – the skills to negotiate a pay rise, but also teach them the skills to organise and challenge how things are done because individualising things can only get us so far.

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