Why the gender pay gap figures don’t tell the whole story

Gender Pay Gap


Gender pay gap figures can often be misleading, says the IPPR this week. Some firms which have a big gender pay gap get slammed in the press when they are doing a lot to address some of the complex web of issues behind the gap. Others which have smaller gaps may do little, but benefit from lower salary levels at the top and the fact that they are in – often lower paid – sectors where women are more concentrated.

Those sectors which are seen as male dominated have to overcome perceptions about their industry, stereotypes about what they do and all manner of other inherited challenges to, in the first place, attract women and to attract them and promote them in sufficient numbers to change the culture. I’ve spoken to some employers in male-dominated sectors in recent weeks who are doing amazing things, driven by a real passion to change things. Their gender pay gap figures and their stats for women at senior manager level are not good, though getting better. They know that there is a long way to go, but they also know how difficult the challenge they face is and that it will be a long haul to make progress and maintain it.

Focusing too much on the figures alone gives an unfair picture of what is being done by these employers. It also opens the path to gaming the figures. My background is in higher education journalism. Rankings and the like have for several years been all the rage in higher education. For some that means universities are more accountable and, of course, accountability is important. I’m all for the ‘what gets measured gets done’ mantra. But statistics can be manipulated and rankings can be gamed. Context is important.

That is why the gender pay gap figures alone are only one part of the equation. They need to be accompanied by narratives which put them in context and set out action plans for how to reduce any inherent unfairness in the system. We live in an age of big data and our ability to exploit data has many positive implications. But every day I am sent “analysis” comparing data from different countries on work life balance, parental leave policies, etc, all done by some automated system and usually with the aim of advertising some product or other. It tells me absolutely nothing because there is no context. This is my basic problem with infographics. They look pretty, but they are often just random statistics with a picture and no analysis. There is no substitute for serious research and work on these deep rooted issues. It’s a hard slog and there are no easy solutions.

*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.

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