Why the gender pay gap needs to be a priority

A webinar yesterday heard how a lack of commitment to tackling the gender pay gap during the pandemic could set women back years.

women in Leadership


Support for prioritising action on the gender pay gap is worryingly low in the UK compared to other European countries despite worries about the impact on women’s work of the pandemic due to the unfair care burden they have faced, a Global Institute for Women’s Leadership webinar heard yesterday.

Research for the institute at King’s College London found 28% of the British public say closing the gender pay gap is important and should be one of our top priorities right now – much lower than similar western European nations, such as France (51%), Spain (46%) and Italy (44%), and lower than the majority of the other countries included in the study, which are all more likely to see this issue as a greater priority at the moment.

But the study also found people in the UK are most likely to be sympathetic to the need to address the gender pay gap – a majority (54%) say concerns about the gender pay gap are a response to a real problem. However, a sizable minority (18%) think they are an example of political correctness going too far. By 48% to 61%, men are less likely than women to see such concerns as a response to a genuine problem.

Unveiling the research, Kelly Beaver from IpsosMORI said that business leaders need to make pay gap reporting happen and added that a return to the pre-pandemic norm was not good enough for women to progress.

Tackling the gender pay gap

Political commentator and journalist Ayesha Hazarika worked with the Labour government on the Equality Act 2010 which contained a clause about gender pay gap reporting which was later enacted by Theresa May’s government. She said the move was hotly contested at the time, including by those in the Labour movement and business leaders. She said it was vital that the pay gap, though crude, was tracked so that something could be done about it. “It was seen as opening a can of worms,” she said, adding that there had been consistent scepticism about the legitimacy of challenging the gender pay gap. She cited, for instance, the idea that women choose to have children and therefore should forfeit their career progression as a result.

Hazarika, who also called for more data on disability and ethnic minorities, pointed out that the economic recovery plan is led by men for men and ignores issues such as childcare. She criticised the 1% pay rise for nurses and said women had shown themselves to be the backbone of the country during the crisis, but were unlikely to see any investment in the sectors they predominate in. Women she met are worried things are returning to the 1950s. She has been to an event on girls recently which showed the pandemic is already impacting girls’ education around the world and leading to girls copying their mums and increasing the amount of housework they do.

Author and psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic told the webinar, chaired by Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia, that he was shocked, but not surprised by the low level of prioritisation of action on the gender pay gap in the UK and US. It was predictable, but not rational, he stated. He was not optimistic about hybrid working and felt there was a risk of creating a two-tier system which benefited men more since they tended to be the first to return to the office. Employers need to be mindful of whether their workplace rewards presenteeism over performance, he said. He pointed out that there was a gap between evidence that kinder, rational, ethical leaders [often women] had had lower death rates during the pandemic and perceptions about leaders. “We are in denial, although the pandemic should make it more difficult for bad leaders to hide…My worry is that women will be perceived as good at managing the crisis, but when the time comes to return to normal people will back the kind of male leaders who excel at creating crises rather than solving them,” he said. “We need to learn from experience.”

Build back better

Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at LSE, has been tracking the longer term gendered impact of previous pandemics such as Ebola and Zika. She said there were common themes with how Covid had affected women. In the UK, women’s employment rates had dropped 5% in just three months at the start of the pandemic and women were also more likely to be furloughed in January [2.3m compared to 2.1m men]. Many couldn’t afford the 20% pay cut that entailed for most. Their jobs were most likely to be impacted due to the sectors they predominated in and they were putting in significantly more additional hours of unpaid care [6.1 extra hours a day compared to 4.7 hours for men globally]. Men were also more engaged in developmental activities with their children in these hours, for instance, play, while women tended to be doing the cooking and cleaning.

Professor Wenham said this was due to cultural norms, with conservative values tending to surge in times of crisis, more women being on furlough or in sectors that had been closed down during the pandemic and more women earning less than their partners. She stated that women were “at bandwidth” and exhausted. Experience of Ebola and Zika showed that the government needs to think now about putting the mechanisms in place to build back better for women, for instance, investing in affordable childcare.

Hazarika said it was important to be aware that many people want gender progress to go backwards and that the women’s movement is fragmented, with some seeing action on the gender pay gap as only about a few wealthy women. She would like to see more unity and more focus on practical policies such as childcare and low pay.

Changing the system

Chamorro-Premuzik said it was not just women who were affected by “the meritocracy propaganda” prevalent in the US and UK which suggested that doing something on the gender pay gap was somehow anti-meritocratic. Professor Wenham said governments ware scared of talking about the gender pay gap as it might mean they have to do something about it. She highlighted that there has still been no published equality impact assessment of Covid-related policies. And she added that reforming the system so that women don’t disproportionately do the unpaid labour is more of a threat to the status quo than giving out money for one-off initiatives.

The panellists were asked about positive leadership traits and noted that women leaders often had these. It didn’t therefore make sense that there was not more support for women leaders, they stated. Hazarika said women leaders often had to carry the weight of their entire gender. Male leaders could make mistakes and it wouldn’t be held against all future male leaders, but the same isn’t true for women. People also tend to point to one or two female leaders and say there is no problem for women coming up as a result. What is important, though, is “a critical mass” of advisers, leaders and so forth, she said. Chamorro-Premuzik said he hoped people would also focus on some of the negative traits of some male leaders the pandemic had highlighted, for instance, the role of “narcissistic psychopaths”.

Asked what would make a difference, Chamorro-Premuzik said reminding men that progress for women is progress for everyone. “We will all be better off if our leaders are competent and mean well,” he said.

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