If you were told by your boss that today was the last day you’d be paid for what you do this year, and that you’re now expected to work for nothing until the end of December while your male colleagues go on earning, you’d rightly be outraged. But today is Equal Pay Day, a marker to illustrate the gender pay gap that still persists between male and female workers. Over a working lifetime, the average gap in earnings will equate to a woman working those extra weeks unpaid at the end of each year, compared to her male counterpart.
In Britain the gender pay gap currently stands at 19.1 per cent for people in full and part-time work, meaning that a woman earns on average 80p for every £1 that a man earns. How can this be the case, you might wonder, when we’ve had equal pay legislation in this country for the last forty years? But while the Equal Pay Act makes it illegal for an employer to pay someone less according to gender, the gender pay gap is calculated as an average hourly rate, based on the overall earnings of all men and women in the workforce. When you look at the broader picture like that, it’s easy to pinpoint some of the reasons why women might fall behind, and consider how we might start to change things.
The most obvious one, of course, is children. Taking time off to have them, needing more flexible hours to look after them – despite new legislation this year allowing parents to share leave after the birth of a child, childcare is still seen primarily as a mother’s responsibility. A significant proportion of professional women either leave the workforce, choose to go part-time or avoid applying for promotions even when they do return, leaving them behind their male peers.
Women are damaging our own chances by not being as assertive as men in the workplace, because girls are not encouraged to push themselves forward
Like so many working parents, I found reliable, quality childcare painfully expensive, and often incompatible with a job that demanded long, irregular hours. When my son started school it was even harder; most schools run to a timetable established generations ago when it was assumed that there would be a mother at home. There aren’t many high-earning jobs that let you leave at 3pm and take six weeks off over the summer. My solution, in the end, was to become self-employed; it’s a path many working mothers opt for, but often what you gain in flexibility, you lose in security. I’ve long argued that the single greatest step towards equality of opportunity in the workplace would be adapting the school day to better suit the needs of working parents in the twenty-first century.
At the same time, we need to push for a culture among employers that recognises the value of working mothers to the economy. This means investment in affordable childcare, whether provided by companies themselves or subsidised by the government, and businesses expanding the possibility of flexible hours or working from home, for men as well as women, so that it’s not seen as something only women do.
But there’s also the possibility that women are damaging our own chances by not being as assertive as men in the workplace, because girls are not encouraged to push themselves forward. A study of 2000 working women carried out by O2 at the beginning of this year found that over a third don’t feel confident asking for a promotion or pay rise at work. When I was in my twenties, I covered a male boss’s job for several months knowing full well that I was being paid less than him for the same work; I’m ashamed to say I never addressed it because I wanted the job too much and was afraid they’d find someone else to do it if I complained. I like to think that now, having turned 40, I’d be bold enough to tackle that straight away, but we need to make sure we’re teaching young women to stand up for themselves from the start of their working lives.
A report by the UN earlier this year found that, at the current rate of change, it will take 70 years to close the gender pay gap. But with a change of attitude – on the part of employers, legislators and working women ourselves – we could commit to making it happen much sooner, so that we and our daughters don’t end up working the tail end of the year for nothing.
With an extra 80p and 70p it seems its all you need to survive in london.