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How do bosses still dare to pay women lower wages?

This article is over 7 years, 6 months old
The resilience of the gender pay gap is nothing to celebrate, Sadie Robinson argues—and the reasons tell us something about how the system uses sexism
Issue 2528
Women workers in local government protesting against pay inequality in 2007
Women workers in local government protesting against pay inequality in 2007 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

We were supposed to celebrate last week after official figures showed that the gender pay gap had slightly closed.

The gap for those in full time work is at its lowest level since records began in 1997.

But it is a disgrace that women are still paid less than men—for the same or equivalent work.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the gender pay gap for all workers, full and part time, is 18.1 percent. So for every pound earned by the average male worker in an hour, the average female worker gets just under 82p.

Why does the gap persist? The ONS gave three main reasons.

More women work part time, women work in different occupations to men and women have more of their time taken up with childbearing and childcare.

All three are linked to women’s oppression. For all the gains women have made, the idea persists that women should take the main responsibility for raising children and caring for other family members.

This is largely why some 41 percent of women work part time compared to just 12 percent of men.

Women who work part time earned 6 percent more than men who worked part time. This is likely to be because women’s part time jobs are permanent, long-term ones, whereas men’s may be more temporary.

Part time workers tend to earn less per hour than full time staff. But even excluding part time workers, full time women workers earn an average of 9.4 percent less than men.


Childcare and other caring responsibilities also mean women are more likely to have gaps in paid work. This may explain why the ONS found that the pay gap was “much wider” for women over 40.

Many of these women will have taken time out of paid work to have children in their 20s or 30s, missing out on pay increments and promotions.

Some will have found bosses unwilling to let them return to their job after having children.

On top of this, sexist ideas still depict some careers as more suited to men. All of these things put barriers in the way of women entering certain jobs. More women than men work in sectors such as administration and caring, the ONS found, which tend to be lower paid.

But the pay gap exists within industries too. That’s because women’s oppression is structured into the system. Sexist ideas dominate—and some bosses think they can get away with paying women less.

One Equal Opportunities Commission report in 2004 found that sexist discrimination accounted for up to half the pay gap. Partly for this reason, the pay gap affects women without children too.

The government’s women’s unit estimated that women lose £240,000 in wages over a lifetime compared with men. Those with children can lose another £140,000.

This robbery of women’s pay only helps the bosses. It’s in the interest of all workers to fight it.

Single status – when ‘equality’ means a massive cut

A majority of public sector workers are women. For them, pay discrimination comes on top of a chilling pay freeze.

But an agreement that was supposed to bring equality in 1997 instead still continues to fuel industrial disputes.

Single Status was agreed by local authorities and trade unions to harmonise conditions and create a common pay scale for jobs.

It was argued that lower paid, predominantly women local government workers’ pay would rise to meet the levels of their male colleagues.

But the New Labour government gave no extra money to fund this. “Equal pay” became an excuse to drive through cuts and privatisation.

Union leaders had no national strategy to ensure pay and conditions were equalised upwards, rather than downwards.

Rather than upset Labour, they left local branches to fight alone.


The legacy of this is still being felt today, with teaching assistants (TAs) currently in the frontline. Labour councils in Derby and Durham are slashing TAs’ pay by a quarter.

They say the workers shouldn’t be paid for time they are not at work—giving the impression that TAs are paid for lengthy school holidays.

The councils chiefs argue that they must move to “term time” contracts to avoid equal pay claims from other council workers.

The move is a smokescreen for budget cuts. In reality, though TAs’ pay is distributed over

12 months, they are only paid for the work they do—during term time.

If they were really motivated by equality, council bosses would simply regrade the TAs to keep their salaries as they move to term time contracts.

An equality deal from the top hasn’t helped women’s pay—but struggle can.

Where the unions struck or threatened strikes over Single Status, they generally got better deals. Where they didn’t, many thousands lost pay.

Raymie Kiernan

Half a century and counting

Young women starting work for the first time today shouldn’t expect to be paid the same as men for another half a century, according to management consultants Deloitte.

If the gender pay gap continues to narrow at the current rate, closing it will take until 2069—some 99 years after the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

Time to walk out in Iceland

Thousands of women in Iceland walked out of work at 2.38pm on Monday of last week to protest against pay discrimination.

The pay gap in the country is 14-18 percent.

That means that women on an eight hour shift are working without pay compared to men on the same hours from 2.38pm onwards.

A world of woe for women

A report by the World Economic Forum forecasts that it could take 170 years to eradicate the worldwide disparity in pay and employment for women.

These global gender gaps have widened in the past four years and are now at levels not seen since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008.

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