In September 2018, I was pleased to offer a workshop at the Contemporary Women Writers Annual conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Writing Wrongs’ and I offered a session riffing on this theme entitled ‘Righting Wrongs for Women in Academia’. The workshop was a space to share strategies, experiences and thoughts on how to shift academic organisational culture, where 1 in 4 professors are women and where BME women are particularly underrepresented.
As businesses employing over 250 staff are scrambling to publish their gender pay gap data before the deadline of midnight tonight, findings thus far are looking stark, though frankly unsurprising.
In the public sector, where the deadline was last Friday, figures reveal that organisations such as councils, the NHS and universities pay women on average 14% less than men. There is no expectation that private sector organisations will perform any better.
I have seen a range of responses to the emerging data which traverse from:
- Outright denial: there is no such thing as a pay gap as the Equal Pay Act makes it illegal and ensures equal pay for equal work;
- Data quibbling: the data only records the median and mean, not the types of jobs people are in or the full-time/part-time divide – thus the data is dismissed as meaningless;
- Welcoming the data as a snapshot and a call to action.
Yes, we have an Equal Pay Act. Equal pay for equal work and has been a legal requirement since 1970. However:
(a) Because something is illegal does not mean it does not occur. No-one would say there is no such thing as burglary because it is illegal. A small proportion of the data currently being reported will almost certainly be due to unequal pay for unequal work. Confidentiality around salaries makes for a culture where this can occur.
(b) Equal pay is not the same as the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is the difference in earnings between men and women overall within an organisation. The current data being collected records the median and mean of women’s salaries and men’s salaries. Thus, women might be in different roles to men or in more part-time roles and the median and mean will capture the overall discrepancy in salaries encapsulating this difference.
It is true that recording the median and mean has its disadvantages in that it does not demonstrate the nuances of discrimination operating within an organisation. Nevertheless, to dismiss the data as meaningless is an easy way to dismiss dealing with the discrimination that is clear from these initial figures. What the average shows is an overall difference difference between the pay of women and men and it requires us to ask questions as to why women are persistently paid less than men in organisations. Why is it that the styles of working and the types of roles women tend to adopt do not offer equal renumeration with the styles and working and the types of roles that men tend to adopt?
There are a range of reasons women may work differently to men, none of them, I would argue, down to unhindered ‘choice’. Significantly, the lion’s share of (unpaid) housework and (unpaid) childcare falls to women, emerging from cultural expectations. Therefore, it is unsurprising that women may not be able to put in a 70 hour week, or even a 37 hour week, at work because they are already working maybe 20 hours unpaid at home. No wonder, then, that a part-time role appears more appealing or a promotion requiring unpaid overtime seems out of reach.
Data quibblers also sometimes like to point out that women go into relatively low paid ‘nurturing’ careers such as teaching/nursing, thus blaming women for their own situation. The real question here is why are these so-called nurturing professions paid less in the first place? Indeed, there is research that demonstrates that when more women enter a profession, the remuneration for that profession drops, suggesting the status of a profession falls when associated with women.
A Call to Action
It is great that the government has made it compulsory for larger organisations to publish their gender pay gap statistics. The first step is recognising the issue; the real work comes in addressing it. Out of this exercise, each organisation will have data upon which to focus their attention and this publication from the Government Equalities Office and CIPD gives advice on how to start taking action.
The gender pay gap illuminates gender bias in the way an organisation is structured, its everyday culture and systems. Organisations can operate as magnifiers or minimisers of gender inequity in society at large. As well as considering the larger points of structural discrimination such as promotion criteria and processes, language in job advertisements, structural and unconscious bias, people often don’t reflect on the apparently small elements of the culture of their organisation in gendered terms.
For example, business breakfast meetings or breakfast networking events are becoming more and more the norm. Think about who is often responsible for the school run and who you might therefore be preventing from attending that 8AM meeting – women! When this happens repeatedly, this woman has fewer chances to connect with colleagues than her male peers, leading to fewer opportunities, and, down the line, she may have less on her CV when it comes to promotion rounds.
However, it’s not just mothers that are affected but all women. For instance, a gender pay gap opens up between graduates within as little as one year of graduating from the same degree programme and increases steadily year on year. This all contributes to the gender pay gap.
A Bifocal Approach
Jen de Vries has suggested that organisations need to take a ‘bifocal approach’ to address gender inequalities. The term is effective: it clarifies that organisations need to take both a short-term and longer-term view in bringing about change. Short term interventions assist women to reach their potential within systems that are not currently offering them equal opportunities.
Here, we might think of women’s leadership programmes or coaching programmes for women, women’s networks and mentoring. These are valuable interventions. However, they do not tackle the roots of the problems: structural inequalities.
Addressing structural inequalities takes the long-term view and is where real change can occur. This requires changing ways of working to eradicate discrimination in the first place so the women do not require additional support to navigate the organisation’s systems. Examples might include rethinking the organisation’s criteria for leadership and promotion or re-evaluating value and remuneration attached to different kinds of work.
Now that large organisations have a clearer view of their gender pay gap, it’s time to clean the lenses on the bifocals and get to work!
I am excited to be collaborating with former colleagues at Northumbria University on this film season at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle. Four films are being screened throughout February and March to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8th) and the centenary of the first women gaining the vote in the UK:
16 February: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Mary Dore, 2014) tracks the histories of second wave feminism in America, from NOW to WITCH, through interviews with the women involved and archive footage of them in action. Introduced by Julie Scanlon and Rosie White.
22 February: Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) chronicles the three-month period in 1965 when Dr Martin Luther King led the campaign to secure equal voting rights culminating in the Selma-Montgomery march. Introduced by Mel Waters and Victoria Bazin.
1 March: The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996) is an example of New Queer Cinema, following the life and loves of a black lesbian documentary-maker. Introduced by Anamarija Horvat and Sue Regan.
8 March: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017) sees the Newcastle premier of this fascinating documentary about the Hollywood actress and inventor. The screening features a Live Q+A with Susan Sarandon as Executive Producer talking about her new film.
Tickets and times at the Tyneside link above!!
In 1976, women gathered from all around the country in Newcastle, well, Ponteland to be precise, for one of only 10 national Women’s Liberation Movement conferences. 1500 women attended to consider the ‘direction of the WLM’. In this public talk organised by the North East Labour History Society, I drew on my interviews with some of the organisers and attendees as well as archival research to tell the story of how the conference came to Ponteland, why it was significant to the region and the national WLM.
The talk was a reprisal requested by NELH Society after I gave it at their joint symposium in October 2017 with Northumbria University for the NELH Golden Jubilee year.