Women’s trouble? The pay gap debate

Sunday 23 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Frobisher 4-6 Gender Wars

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Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

After Germany last year enacted legislation imposing a 30% gender quota for the boards of publicly listed companies, calls have grown for the UK to enact similar measures. The UK government’s Davies Review praised increases in corporate diversity over the past five years and rejected quotas, but maintained there needed to be ‘a real exposure’ of pay inequality. As Women and Equalities Minister, Nicky Morgan announced plans to force companies to publish disparities between male and female pay, with much-publicised research released on International Women’s Day arguing that the pay gap stands at 24% and that women will earn on average £300,000 less than male counterparts over the course of their working lives.

Yet many insist the notion women are paid less for the same work as men is a myth: pointing out that until the age of 30 women actually out-earn men. It is argued that the overall gap of 9.4% gap is not rooted in formal discrimination but instead complex social factors, most significantly women having children. Some demands for more women in senior positions are driven by arguments that this leads to more family-friendly policies, but Sheryl Sandberg’s suggestion that her Facebook employees should freeze their eggs to maximise career prospects has proven highly controversial. Explaining lower levels of female representation at senior levels in certain industries or disciplines remains a fraught business. There is no shortage of media commentary bemoaning ‘macho’ and ‘boys’ clubs’ working cultures from the High Court to laboratories, which are supposedly off-putting to young women, but quotas and positive discrimination seem equally unpopular with female workers already in those fields, who view it as undermining the principle of meritocracy.

Given the speed at which the gender pay gap is shrinking, does it deserve the attention it is given? Does the closing of the pay gap across the West represent a general trend towards workplace equality, or has it been skewed by the decline of male-dominated manual industries? Do demands for more women at senior levels enhance the cause of equality or simply create a small number of ‘golden skirts’ at the top? With demographic researchers noting a widening gender gulf in educational attainment – in some areas girls are 50% more likely to attend university – should we be more concerned with underachieving boys?