Just over a week ago it was widely publicized in the national press that women working full-time in both the UK and America may as well take an eight week holiday between October 30th and January 1st. Why? Because, technically, they stop earning money 10 months into every year. The reason for this state of affairs is the pay gap between the sexes, which currently means that for every pound a man earns, his female colleagues will earn 83 pence. In a job with a £25,000 salary, that would be £4,250 less every year.

However, as this 17% financial divide is calculated over the course of working careers – rather than on a weekly pay cheque by pay cheque basis – the pay gap can seem like a figment of our imaginations. After all, there are powerful women raking it in, and plenty of men who earn very little. But the disparity exists because of many factors, rather than outright sexist divisions in pay. This does not mean, however, that sexism isn’t a latent issue within the labour market.

Some professions, such as the food service industry, mainly employ women in the low paying jobs whilst men dominate the high-flying roles. This is what contributes to pay discrepencies. Photo: thedailymind.com

Some professions, such as the food service industry, mainly employ women in the low paying jobs whilst men dominate the high-flying roles. This is what contributes to pay discrepencies. Photo: thedailymind.com

There are three important factors which help explain the 17% discrepancy.

Just over a week ago is was widely publicized in the national press that women working full-time in both the UK and America may as well take an eight week holiday between October 30th and January 1st. Why? Because, technically, they stop earning money 10 months into every year. The reason for this state of affairs is the pay gap between the sexes, which currently means that for every pound a man earns, his female colleagues will earn 83 pence. In a job with a £25,000 salary, that would be £4,250 less every year.

Horizontal segregation

Otherwise known as the division of labour which occurs between the sexes when men tend to work in high status, high pay careers, and women take jobs in low status, low pay areas.

The underlying reasons for this can be simplified like so: patriarchal traditions dictate that women care for and serve others whilst following orders. Meanwhile the menfolk lead others and earn money to provide for those who serve and care for them (ie, women). Since caring apparently comes so naturally to women, jobs such as nursing, teaching and childcare would appear to be a happy outlet for those who choose to work, who would otherwise be at home caring for others in a domestic capacity. The low pay of this type of work is therefore translated into an incidental bonus, since caring is somehow seen as its own reward. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be aggressive and status driven, and so seek out higher paid work which includes exercising power (for example management, business and law). The money and power link is not incidental. This is, admittedly, a flippant assessment of what is going on, but it nonetheless explains some of the hidden prejudices which affect the way we work.

The forthcoming Equality Bill will ensure that:

  • Employers will take positive action when selecting between two equally qualified candidates, under-representation of disadvantaged groups, for example women and people from ethnic minority communities.
  • Employment secrecy clauses will prevent people discussing their own pay will be banned.

The amount of pay which certain types of work are rewarded with vary for an important reason: certain professions are lowly paid because women do them. Others are highly paid because men do them. This reflects the simple reality that the modern labour market depends upon the patriarchal, pro-masculine nature of our society. It’s easy to see why – once upon a time it seemed logical to men to structure labour markets which suit their own best interests, which – rightly or wrongly – was their prerogative. It would have been illogical not to. Even today these sex-based evaluations within our labour force are deeply ingrained in our society to the extent that they seem normal and fair to many.

However, the actual status of the work in question is not a fixed value, but rather a cultural assumption that ‘masculine’ work is worth more than ‘feminine’ work, and this shows the bias towards male interests. Yet this perspective has become increasingly anachronistic, as women have gradually earned themselves the freedom to demonstrate equal capability to men in the world of work. Women can be world class architects, like Zaha Hadid. Or a FTSE 100 businesswoman, like Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of international publishing company Pearson. Or even internationally powerful politicians, like Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher. Nonetheless, it is still rare for women to wield such power. And, even if it was commonplace for women to work alongside men in these types of jobs, power itself is not an intrinsic good. Being a well paid executive who hires and fires may be paid more than a nurse, but that doesn’t make it just. This is where sexism is starkly evident – if jobs were paid in accordance with their wider social value, one might expect to see nurses earn more than hedge funders. The recent economic climate is the result of unregulated free trade justified by the inevitable ‘trickle-down’ of wealth from the City bankers to those employed in less pressured and less monetarily rewarding spheres. The macho aggressiveness of the banking hunter gatherers has backfired, leaving us to wonder why they were ever so highly paid in the first place. And why, perhaps, those doing work of a less glamorous but more praiseworthy nature in the NHS have been left to struggle. The gender politics of the labour markets are not working, and political agitation for a fairer recognition of who contributes what to society is needed to counter this impasse.

What does the government say?

  • The period of working mothers’ Statutory Maternity Pay (£117.18 a week), Statutory Adoption Pay and Maternity Allowance has increased to 39 weeks since April 2007.
  • By the end of this Parliamentary term, Labour aims to give a new right to fathers to take up to 26 weeks Additional Paternity Leave before their child’s first birthday, to allow mothers to return to work early should they wish to.
  • Labour’s goal is to extend Statutory Maternity Pay, Maternity Allowance and Statutory Adoption Pay from 39 week to 52 weeks by the end of this Parliament.

So how can this change come about? Part of the problem lies in our personal histories – it goes as far back as childhood, when girls are given dolls to care for and boys are given guns to fight with. Our passive and active roles are assigned so early that they become hard to fight, and girls and boys follow the cues given to them throughout education – boys do science, girls do art. Science is perceived to be challenging, and many girls are raised to shy away from challenges, or wait until others have taken the lead. Boys are expected to take the initiative. Unfair pressures dictate behaviour on both sides. Even as girls routinely outperform boys in both primary and secondary school, they still leave the education system with a lower expectation of what they can offer the world and what the world can offer them. Yet this is detrimental to everyone, not just individual cases of misapplied talent – the Labour government argues that “the gender pay gap isn’t just bad news for women. It means that women’s abilities and skills are not being fully utilised in businesses and in the economy.”

Vertical segregation

This describes when men dominate the higher tiers of professions where women make up the majority of an industry’s workforce.

An example would be that the shop assistants in Topshop are largely women, who are ultimately the employees of Philip Green, the owner of the Arcadia Group and numerous profitable clothes businesses. Another instance is the caterers at your old school – they hold jobs so associated with women that the job title is essentially ‘dinnerlady,’ yet the chefs at the top of the catering industry – the ones who run restaurants and win Michelin stars – are usually men, such as Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal.

So what’s the explanation for this? Perhaps it’s because men are raised to be competitive, to lead, to earn large sums of money with which they then support their families. They are led to expect career progression; women, meanwhile, often approach work with fewer demands. For the women eager to make progress there is the proverbial glass ceiling, or socially enforced barriers between women and the higher pay, higher status roles. Ambitious women can expect to be perceived as less able to lead teams, less able to interact well with the male colleagues who will surround them, and less likely to commit to the job. This final issue of commitment relates to the problem of family life, the third reason for discrimination against women in the workplace.

Family roles

Women may require pregnancy leave, maternity leave, a switch to a part time role, or they may even simply resign in favour of family life. This is all understandably problematic for employers faced with a choice between male and female candidates for a position. But women still have much to offer the labour market, even when they have families, and to make it difficult for them to continue working is a huge waste of talent and intellect. There are also problems involved for men; the fathers who return to work within a week of their child being born are being just as wasted as the women who long to leave their babies in the care of others in favour of working hard. There is no right or wrong approach to work and family – they are interdependent and mutually validating occupations and the pressures which both sexes encounter in the world of work are unfair for all concerned. Fathers who feel unable to choose to care for their children beyond paternity leave and mothers whose will to work trumps her need to be the primary caregiver are currently losing out.

The government has pledged to reduce the pay gap significantly by 2010 (see fact boxes). By offering more state child care, more flexible parenthood leave from work, and fostering more fluid gender identifications then this is an achievable goal. Let’s hope that the good theory will become good practice by the time we enter the world of work.

I hope that all who have read these columns about the gender inequalities which affect us today have found them interesting and thought-provoking. If you would like to express an opinion on any of the subjects raised then please send your responses in to the Badger at badger-comment@ussu.sussex.ac.uk.

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2 Comments

  • This is again an excellent article. I have really appreciated this series on gender.

    This article does a commendable job of explaining when and where the pay gap occurs, indeed as it can seem like a ‘figment of our imaginations’, an outdated absurdity that women earn less than men. The article goes deeper to show that it is more than women simply earning less than men in a way that we’d expect to see it happening and stop it happening – differences are more often discreetly woven within the societal constructs of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ work.

    I have noticed a good example of this in my own experience of jobhunting. When browsing the local council website, I saw available posts for caring, teaching, and domestic work; and posts for receptionists and secretaries. This kind of feminine labour was invariably within the salary bracket of £11000 – £15000, sometimes even lower.
    However, jobs for the post of refuse collector, also advertised with the council, have a significantly higher salary of £18000. This job is so commonly taken by men that it is societally normalised as masculine – the ‘binman’.
    This striking discrepancy in pay, in this case from the same employer, means we can’t help but notice how two domains, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, are being rewarded unequally.