It’s the old chestnut – “Women earn 77% of what men earn for exactly the same work”. It’s a lie.
“But it must be true, because it’s quoted everywhere, right?” Wrong. Is there an earnings gap between men and women? Yes. Is it the 23% that is constantly quoted? No. Even if it were, it’s not as clear and simple as many feminist activists would have you believe and here’s why.
Please remember that in this article I will be addressing the scale of any earnings discrepancy. Are women being systematically paid less than men for the same work? This is not meant to address how we came to this position, just identifying what if any disparity exists in pay, and what accounts for it.
What is the Gender Pay Gap?
A much repeated lie is that women are paid only 77% of the salary a man receives for “exactly the same work”. This is simply not true. It never was. The figure quoted was from a US Census Bureau report from 2012, but it’s not what you’re lead to believe. What the figure represents is the median total annual earnings of all full time employees.
“So it’s real then, obviously? I mean, the evidence is right there.” – Not so much. Yes there is an earnings gap; but this didn’t take into account even the most obvious consideration – how many hours did each work? Surely that should be a factor in determining how much someone should earn, right? It appears not when it comes to perpetuating a dogmatic narrative. Here’s a few other factors that need to be accounted for before this figure, or any other like it, is used to prove that women are underpaid:
- Hours worked
- Physical and technical requirements
- Overtime and on-call hours
- Time off (planned or unplanned)
- Salary negotiations
- Risks taken (physical and financial)
- Location (how far you are willing to go)
If you don’t think that some or all of these factors should be included in a discussion of earnings, but instead simply believe that everyone should get paid the same then that is a different discussion. If you, like me, think that contribution should play a role in determining what someone is paid then how about we take a look at some of these and consider whether a gender bias in some or all of these could influence the overall earnings and explain the earnings disparity. Shall we?
So, what is the Gender Earnings Gap in the UK?
Fortunately the Office of National Statistics recently changed the data they provided from the median weekly earnings, to the median hourly earnings. This has made a huge improvement as it immediately takes our or first and most obvious issue with the 77% myth – that of the hours worked to earn the salary. It is also split into full and part time roles, which is significant.
For full time roles, the median hourly rate (excluding overtime) for women is 9.4% lower than that for men overall. So it is indeed less (note that in part time roles women earn 6.5% more per hour than men). It’s not 23% though. In fact it’s nothing like 23%. But is it acceptable? Well then we start looking further.
Physical and technical requirements
I think it is well known that men tend to be more common in roles that require more physical strength and/or endurance. Hard physical labour. Industries like construction, mechanics, agriculture, petroleum workers etc. I will state though that I don’t have a strict definition of what roles fall into this category or a way to quantify any gender disparity in these positions.
However, when it comes to the technical requirements we have a handy, though woolly, definition of technical roles. These are STEM roles – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We do indeed have some details of the demographics showing the contrasting numbers of men and women in various STEM fields, both in education and in industry.
Overall women make up just 12.8% of the UK STEM workforce*. I think from that we can agree that the majority of the the most technical roles in the UK are performed by men. Is it right that the most technical roles are better paid? Whether or not you agree it should be acknowledged as a factor.
* Note, both the 12.8% and and the 21% shown on the graph are from the same source. Without further clarification on the difference I am assuming that the 21% is within the STEM industries as a whole including all administration, management, business etc. whereas the 12.8% is STEM specific roles (engineers, technicians, analysts etc.
Why are women so underrepresented in STEM? There are a number of viable hypotheses for this ranging from the misogynist “Women are just not as capable” through to the conspiratorial “women are not allowed into these positions” and a wide gamut of explanations in between. Regardless of why it occurs, the fact remains that the disparity influences the average salaries as STEM fields do generally pay more.
Hours worked and Overtime
Men work more hours. This breaks down into a few sections
- Within full time work, men do more hours than women
- Men also do more overtime on top of their basic hours than women
- Men do more full time roles than women. Women do more part time roles than men
As stated above, we were already looking at the median hourly rate paid to men and women excluding overtime, so why is the number of hours worked important? For two reasons. The first is simply because a lot of the quoted figures regarding the gender pay gap are not as honest. Instead they use the weekly or annual pay statistics and ignore how many hours were worked.
Secondly though I believe that the number of hours worked does correlate to the hourly rate. I have worked in a number of roles at various levels within companies. It has always been the case that those in more senior positions and those with the most responsibilities are expected to work longer hours by default. With seniority comes responsibility and two aspects are that are higher salary and higher expectations to work longer hours and sacrifice work-life balance. Roles that are more flexible in terms of hours worked, fitting more around your other responsibilities tend to pay less. It’s a compromise.
So where does that leave men and women? Men more often end up in roles where they are required to work longer hours and compromise their home, family and social life more. Whether through choice, necessity or prejudice women are more often in flexible roles requiring less hours at work and less overtime. These are generally roles that the pay is lower as a result. So hours worked does influence the pay rates of the roles. The same goes for part time vs full time roles. Part time roles are more common in less senior positions. “Casual” work is generally amongst the lowest paid and is usually part time.
The point is that men doing fewer hours, or in part time work also earn significantly less than those in full time positions and working and longer hours. Another example where it is the job, not who does it (gender or otherwise) that is affecting the pay rate.
We’ve been hearing recently how women are out performing men in education now. Surely this mean that women should be earning more?
The facts do show that girls and women are now entering further and subsequently higher education more than boys and men. Not only that but as we can see they are getting better results when they are there. Are they not as good at science as the boys and instead winning out on the less technical subjects? That doesn’t seem to be the case either. Even in the STEM fields girls are getting better average grades.
So what’s going on then? It is becoming clear that it’s not that girls can’t do science. It’s that they don’t want to. Those entering the technical fields are showing that they are performing superbly, it’s just that very few are going down that route. The actual number of girls entering these fields is far below the number of boys. More girls are going on to do A-levels but the science classes are remaining predominantly male.
The number of women newly qualified for technical roles is still significantly below the number of men. The situation was even worse in previous generations, so within technical industries there are far fewer qualified women, especially at the senior levels (who earn more even within the industry) and will be for years to come even if women did start qualifying at the same rate as the men.
And that’s a big “if”. Are women being discouraged from working in technical fields or do they just not want to? What, if anything, is holding them back? Do these subjects appeal to more men more than women, or are men simply more willing to put up with these roles for the higher salaries and women choosing to go down career paths they simply find more enjoyable? Should we be forcing women to take up roles they don’t want? Should we be incentivising them over men by giving them gender privileges?
Yes it’s an overplayed meme, but is there some truth in it? How many of those complaining that women aren’t getting “the opportunities” in STEM had actually pursued a technical career? What evidence is there that women are hindered when wishing to follow that career path?
It’s difficult to know with any reasonable level of confidence when studies even from the same organisation publish conflicting results in which the first appears to prove that STEM appointments favour men in the second it seems the be biased in favour of women.
Why aren’t women going into STEM? Is it simply that fewer girls like these subjects? On the world stage there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between countries where women have more freedom, and those where there are more women in science. In fact the evidence that does exist appears to show quite the opposite. This implies that when women are given more choice and freedom, they choose not to take these careers.
The point being that women are getting more qualifications, but not in the fields that are going to pay the best wages.
Experience and Seniority
There are more male CEO’s and business owners. There are more male managers. There are more men in senior positions in general. Senior positions pay more. I think that’s simple enough.
The question is then why? As with the qualifications we have to understand what is causing the disparity in order to address it. To simply put this down to sexism or “the glass ceiling” without considering other possibilities is naive and dismissive. It falls again into the trap of looking for someone to blame rather than looking for a solution. Possible causes could include (amongst others):
- Gender Roles
- Risk Taking
- Work-life balance
And these can be expressed in a number of ways.
For example, in an article in The Guardian entitled “Jennifer Lawrence expresses anger at Hollywood’s gender pay gap“, there is reference to (and even quotes from) a piece written by Jennifer Lawrence where she specifically states that her desire to be liked was greater than her ambition.
This is something that she attributed to her naivety and has learned from but is still put out there as proof that women are victims of discrimination. Are men more willing to risk their social status, to appear arrogant when negotiating? If so and this tactic works, who is “to blame” when women follow a more passive approach and lose out? Of course we’d all like people to be paid exactly what they are worth, but in reality that doesn’t happen unless you ask, or in fact demand it.
That was of course just a single example, and about negotiating pay, but could the same be said of pushing your career in general? Going for promotions? Are women, for whatever reason, choosing to be nice rather than push themselves? If so why? Jennifer goes on to ask “Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?” Contrary to many wishing to use her experience to push a narrative, she doesn’t claim to know and instead asks the question and seems open to discussing, rather than assuming, the answers. This is contrary to the approach by The Guardian who simply chalk it up to “misogyny in the entertainment industry“.
Another example is risk taking. As pointed out by Forbes (reporting on findings by Bloomberg) 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. It’s a risky venture. As I’m sure we are all aware, men and women deal with risk assessment differently and this results in men taking more risks leading to more failures, but also more successes. There are more men at the top at least in part because more men took those risks.
Then of course there is the motivations, expectations and approaches. The number of women starting their own businesses is increasing quickly, but the female entrepreneurs starting them are not getting the big payouts that the men are. Or are they? It depends on how you judge success. Women tend to jump ship for freedom, control, ethics etc whereas men more often push for more money. Are there really fundamental differences in personality between the genders that result in a disparity not only in the number of entrepreneurs, but also what they want to get out of running their own businesses?
Can you put money low down on your priorities, then complain that others are earning more than you? If you are willing to give up more to increase your income, should other be earning the same without those sacrifices?
A final note on experience and seniority is simply legacy. Men of previous generations were more likely to be working toward a career. Without even factoring in time taken off for having children, women were in less senior roles generally. As with the education issue, this means that older women simply don’t have the same level of experience in the senior roles as men. That inertia can’t be overcome immediately. This experience cannot be obtained retrospectively. That is in no way a suggestion that we do nothing, just acknowledgement that simply looking at who is earning more now is not evidence that equality of opportunity for the next generation has not been achieved.
Most of the issues listed at the start of this are interwoven. This however is pretty clear. Men travel further to work.
Men on average travelled 95% more miles for commuting than women. This not only means that more of their time was dedicated to working (in addition to the extra hours at work) but also costs more and possibly most importantly shows that men are willing to literally go further for the right job. Almost twice as far. That means that they are open to positions from nearly 4 times the number of positions. Again we have to ask, should those unwilling (or to be fair, unable) to expand their horizons be paid as much as those looking further afield?
This is meant primarily to open discussion. There may be follow ups to direct toward possible solutions but I feel the main conclusion from this article is that there are many valid reasons women are currently earning less. It’s not to claim that there isn’t sexism at play in some cases. Clearly though the disparity can not be attributed entirely, or even predominently to women being “held back”. Much as this goes against the “Patriarchy theory”, women are at least in part responsible for earning less.
It hasn’t even been shown conclusively that women earning less is a bad thing. If women are benefiting from a better work-life balance, less commuting, having more flexibility, doing jobs they prefer and generally avoiding the rat race, who is really winning? Is putting the emphasis on one figure and demanding parity of outcome, rather than equality of opportunity really addressing the issue?
Or, should we just do as one British company did, and simply increase the salaries of women regardless of their performance, seniority, role or even hours worked?