Gender Pay Gap: Is the Metric Useful or Overly Simplistic?

Today is Equal Pay Day in the U.K.  – read up on what that means for gender equality and how improvements can continue to be made. 

10 November 2016 is a symbolic day in the U.K. for those who actively support gender equality.  According to the figures provided by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the gender pay gap in the United Kingdom for 2016 is 9.4%, which is down just 0.2% from last year. Based on this difference, women will in effect be working for free from now until the end of the year in comparison to their male counterparts. This figure, and its equivalents in other countries, has been a mobilising force. They bring attention to the issue of gender equality each year with a spate of articles and blogs, and galvanise protests throughout the world. This has been demonstrated by protests in France and Iceland in the past two weeks alone.  

In addition to the positive attention these figures bring to the pay disparity between men and women, these movements are usually accompanied by a wave of criticism surrounding the figure itself. These criticisms include accusations of activists re-calculating ONS statistics in misleading ways; the statistic unfairly comparing unequal jobs; and that the single figure oversimplifies the differences seen in different age groups; painting an inaccurate picture.  Critics believe that this inaccurate representation is divisive, and can create friction between employers and women who believe they are being underpaid. These differing opinions raise multiple questions about the gender pay gap statistic. Is it a useful metric in today’s society, or a misleading figure? Are there inequalities not represented within the statistic?

The gender pay gap can be a useful statistic in understanding the pay differences between men and women; however, to be valuable it needs to be examined further than just the overall gap. By looking past the base statistic one can better understand where the pay difference originates, which provides more useful applications of the statistics. The problem with the base figures is that contrary to its inference, most instances of wage disparity do not come from differences in pay in comparable jobs, so the initial statistic is misleading. This practice became illegal in the U.K. with the Equal Pay Act of 1970 which states that employers must provide equal pay for equal work. The success of this act can be seen by the fact that there is virtually no pay gap in workers from age 22-39. Because of this, the understanding that the pay gap is a remunerable difference in equal jobs is incorrect. However, when the statistics are looked at in detail it becomes obvious that the pay gap stems from three factors: women being three times more likely than men to be part time workers, occupational segregation, and larger gender pay gaps in older generations.  When these nuances of the pay gap are understood by looking more closely at the statistics, more is understood about the source of the inequality. This understanding is valuable for the creation of policies to close the gap more quickly.

While the gender pay gap statistics does provide useful information to create a more equal society, the scope of these measurements need to be expanded. This is because not all gender inequality is equal. Substantive equality will only be possible when race is considered in addition to gender within the statistics. Data produced by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) using ONS figures in February outlined the disparity in wages between racial groups within the UK. According to the TUC, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers have an average pay gap from their white counterparts of 5.6%. If the statistics of black workers are isolated the pay gap is 12.8%.  This statistic is also positively correlated with education. The higher the educational achievement of the worker, the larger the pay gap is. Degree holding BAME workers have a 10.3% pay gap, and if black laborers are isolated again the gap is 23.1% between them and their white peers. In the UK this discrimination presents itself similarly to gender discrimination. Brynin and Güveli argue that that these wage differences in the UK rarely stem from remuneration gaps of employees in the same position, but rather occupational segregation of races and discrimination in the hiring process.

Analysing race while researching the gender pay gap is imperative for creating an intersectional approach to wage disparity in the UK. Doing this would recognise the interlocking nature of the social constructions of race and gender. Because these social constructions are inextricably linked and occur simultaneously, they create conditions that are much more complex than the sum of their parts, and therefore, must be analysed together. By doing this the economic stratification created by the intersection of race and gender can be discovered, as the Pew Research Center has produced for the United States. This strategy is advantageous because with a full understanding of the economic stratification caused by these intersections policies can be tailored to the necessary groups, to create true wage equality.

The gender pay gap is a highly complex issue that needs to be examined more in depth than solely the single statistic showing the median difference between the salaries of men and women. However, the criticism by opponents of the statistic is unfair. When the metric is looked at in greater detail, especially when the statistic is broken down into age groups, it has the ability to indicate where the gap is coming from. This can be useful to citizens and policy makers. Despite the metric’s usefulness it should be adjusted to also include racial analysis into the gender pay gap. The introduction of an intersectional approach to this issue is the best way to create substantive wage equality for all women, which is the true spirit of this day.

Kevin Orsini is an intern in the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. He holds an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, and a BA from Canisius College in International Relations and History. His research interests include terrorism, gender-based violence in conflict, and the UN women, peace and security agenda.


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