Why do women earn 14% less than men? Andrea Mara investigates 7 years ago

Why do women earn 14% less than men? Andrea Mara investigates

November 9th was Equal Pay Day – from that point on, UK women work for free until the end of the year, at least when compared to their male counterparts. The campaign highlights the 14 per cent gender pay gap that exists in the UK, and the “working for free” concept seems, at least at first, like a good way to focus attention on the inequality. But does it tell the full story, or could it be a counter-productive distraction from the real issues facing women in the workplace?

First of all, why do women earn 14 per cent less than men? The calculation is based on a comparison of full-time workers, so the fact that many women with children work part-time is not the answer, at least not directly.

So are employers deliberately and directly discriminating against women when they decide on salaries? Logic suggests that in most cases, they’re probably not. There may indeed be individual employers who choose to hire women but consciously pay them less than men who are doing the same job, but it doesn’t sound like something the majority of hiring managers would do.

But what about men and women who are not doing the same job? We know that unfortunately most CEOs are male – no offence men, it would just be better if there was balance. And we know that CEOs earn more than those working at lower levels in the organisation – in fact, the bosses of FTSE100 companies are now earning 183 times the salary of the average UK employee.

So logically, this accounts for a proportion of the pay gap. The 14 per cent calculation doesn’t take different types of roles into account and the astronomical salaries earned by people at the top – it’s just an average figure.

So a very real problem here is the lack of women in senior roles – it’s not just a simple, stark pay gap of 14 per cent. If it were, it would probably be easier to stamp out. In fact, when I tried to explain it to my kids this week, they said, “But why doesn’t the president just make it illegal?” If only it were that straight-forward.

Paying employees different salaries for doing different jobs is absolutely acceptable, and employers need to be able to continue to pay higher salaries to those in more senior roles.

What we need are more women in those senior roles, earning those higher salaries. And unfortunately, the barriers to that are much greater and more complex than a 14 per cent pay gap.

Equal Pay Day is eye-catching – the notion of working for free from now until New Year’s Eve is the kind of thing that stops us in our tracks. But that’s exactly the problem. If I’m a hiring manager (and I was for fifteen years) and I read that women earn 14 per cent less than men, I’ll look at my own staff, and question whether or not I’m being fair. Are men and women who are doing the same roles earning the same money? In many or even most cases (and in my case), the answer is probably yes. So the 14 per cent gap is happening somewhere else – it’s not in my organisation. I’m treating men and women equally in terms of pay – I can move on.


But Equal Pay Day doesn’t necessarily prompt employers to look at gender balance. It assumes a comparison of like-with-like. It doesn’t ask anyone to explain why there are more men in senior positions – it’s just a bald figure, pertaining to a pay gap that is probably invisible in most organisations.

There are many reasons why men are in more senior roles than women. In some cases, yes, no doubt, there is direct discrimination – men promoted ahead of women simply because they are men. But beyond that, the reasons are less clear-cut.

There are women who don’t progress because they are sidelined or mommy-tracked when they have children – it’s assumed that because they have kids, they’re no longer interested in career progression.

There are women who are prevented from applying for promotions because they work a four-day-week and particular roles are deemed (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as full-time roles.

There are women who choose to step back for a number of years while children are small.

There are women who want a different long-term track – satisfaction and progression, but without the long hours that a CEO position may bring.

There are women who want to and should put themselves forward for senior roles but don’t, because they think they can’t – research shows that men will apply for a role with only 60 per cent of the requirements whereas women, on average, do so when they have 100 per cent of the requirements.

And quite apart from career progression and senior positions, study after study shows that men are better than women at asking for salary increases. So sometimes men earn more just because they ask.

And that’s the problem with Equal Pay Day – it doesn’t address any of this. It suggests that there’s a blunt 14 per cent pay gap that we should simply close. And because most of us can’t see it in our own organisations, it lets everyone off the hook. We read it, raise our eyebrows, maybe tweet it, and then move on – because it’s not applicable here. If it gets a conversation going, it’s worth doing, but arguably only if it’s the relevant conversation.

Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.