Mind the Gap: gendering pay image

Mind the Gap: gendering pay

The gender pay gap has been a focus of relentless media attention in recent months, especially because of a number of high-profile examples at the BBC. And with yesterday being International Women's Day it was again back on the agenda. There are lots of statistics (and opinions) on the subject, but getting to grips with what the statistics tell us is surprisingly tricky.

In January this year the Office for National Statistics released an article on the gender pay gap. Interpreting this article takes some effort in itself but Radio 4’s More or Less programme helpfully extracted the key points and is worth listening to.

The ONS preferred headline figure is the difference in income between the median man (that is, the man who is exactly halfway between the highest earning man and the lowest earning) and the median woman. The reveals a gender pay gap of 9.1%. That is a significant gap, but what it means and why it exists is harder to parse. To illustrate, More or Less examined the BBCs equal pay audit. This reveals that in some pay grades men are paid more than women while in other grades women are paid more than men. In the largest pay grade (point 7) men are paid 4.1% more than women. But even when comparing the pay of men and women in the same pay grade comparisons are not straightforward: being in the same pay grade as someone else doesn’t mean you are doing the same job as them. In fact, in jobs at the BBC where there is a greater than 5% pay gap the bias is as often in favour of women as it is of men.

An article in The Economist exploring these issues states that,

In the rich and middle-income countries that make up the OECD, the median wage of a woman working full-time is 85% that of a man. This is not, as many assume, because employers pay a woman less than they would have paid a man in her place. Data from 25 countries collected by Korn Ferry, a consultancy, show that women earn 98% as much as men who do the same job for the same employer. The real reason is twofold. Women outnumber men in positions with lower salaries and little chance of promotion. And men and women are segregated between occupations and industries; those where women predominate pay less.

This suggests that the real issue is not whether there is a gender pay gap but why women predominate in jobs that pay less: is this because the patriarchy is still preventing women from entering higher-paid work positions - or is something else going on?

This terrific infographic about NHS employees illustrates these questions neatly.


Women dominate the NHS, representing 77% of the total workforce. However, of consultants - who earn the largest salaries in the NHS - 65% are men. It seems unlikely that this is primarily due to discrimination, although the role of the consultant has traditionally been viewed as a very ‘male’ occupation. More likely is that many female doctors do not pursue consultant careers because they choose to have families and the punishing demands of being a consultant do not balance easily with domestic life. Plus, in many specialities there is little scope for part-time work. Interestingly, there are now more female than male GPs - this being a medical position in which it is easier to have a happier home-work balance. Also, there are now more female than male medical students which means that in coming decades the ratio of male and female doctors in all positions (including consultants) is likely to change.

Of course it is not only in medicine that we see men occupying more of the higher paying positions. The Economist goes on to say this,

Just a fifth of senior executives in G7 countries are female. Across the European Union supervisors are more likely to be male, even when most of their underlings are female. Nearly 70% of working women in the EU are in occupations where at least 60% of workers are female. The top four jobs done by American women-teacher, nurse, secretary and health aide-are all at least 80% female.

This could be down to structural discrimination that still exists or it might be because - for whatever reason - women choose occupations that pay less. This is the explanation that Jordan Peterson has been articulately explaining, as in that interview with Cathy Newman. The evidence for this is that in Scandinavia, with the most egalitarian societies on earth, jobs such as nursing are still dominated by women.

So getting to the bottom of that 9.1% pay gap really is not straightforward. Even whether it really exists in any meaningful sense in western liberal economies is moot. Kate Andrews, editor at the Institute of Economic Affairs, observes that,

Not even the official figures from the ONS are making like-for-like comparisons; job, education, background, and work experience are not controlled for in the pay gap figures. Evidence from the United States suggests that when you further account for such variables, the gender pay gap almost completely disappears. But even without a thorough breakdown of evidence, young women in the UK have every reason to believe that they will receive equal pay; the gender pay gap from women aged 22-39 is negligible. We must stop bombarding them with inflated statistics, cherry-picked and designed to make them feel helpless. We might instead, dare I say, consider celebrating the huge gains women have made in the workforce over the past two decades.

Politically, the important issue is whether legislation demands equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Equality of outcome would demand that there are equal numbers of men and women in senior positions (though, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding concern that there should be as many female as male carpet fitters or road sweepers). This would create equality - at least numerically - but doesn’t seem very fair. Equality of opportunity demands that neither men nor women are discriminated against in the workplace - which is fair, but unlikely to produce equal numbers of men and women in any given occupation. These are contentious waters and it is as unlikely that society will reach consensus on them as that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will have a face to face meeting. Wait, say what?!

Pastorally, the main concern has got to be that we treat all people with dignity as those made in the image of God: male and female, professional classes and working class. It also means that we recognise that men and women are different and make different choices.

Personally, I’m very grateful that contemporary Britain enables women as well as men to make the career choices they want. I have one daughter who is being sponsored through university by the British Army, another who is hoping to start at medical school in September, and another who is thinking about becoming a chemist. They should be paid equally with their male counterparts. But if they choose not to pursue the high-flying options available to them and take lower paying work which offers them greater flexibility to do other things that will be fine with me too. That’s what genuine equality looks like.


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