Why gender pay inequality is a structural issue

Alice Martin responds to gender pay gap figures

The gender pay gap statistics released today show that on average, women are earning 9.6% less than men for each hour they work, and that 45% of UK companies have seen an increase in the disparity in pay in favour of men. 

Coverage of the release is likely to include discussions of how women need to assert themselves more in the workplace in order to close the gap. Reports may also argue that the discrepancy in pay is inevitable because many women reduce their working hours when they choose to have children. But at best — these two lines of argument miss the point, and at worst – they peddle a myth about work that will perpetuate the persistent inequality between men and women.

The gender pay gap is not down to women not leaning in’ at work – it is the symptom of a structural inequality in our jobs market. There are a number of ways this structural imbalance plays out. Firstly through the devaluation of forms of women’s work”, and secondly, caring responsibilities mean that women are being increasingly drawn into flexible’, and essentially insecure, forms of work without adequate services or rights attached.

Women are over-represented in many sectors and jobs with endemic low pay and insecurity, like health and social care, childcare, cleaning and retail. They are twice as likely as men to be working part-time and in want of more hours. Women also carry out the majority of work in the informal, unregulated areas of our economy, such as foster care, sex work, and domestic labour.

Increasing numbers of women are moving into self-employment, partly drawn by the potential of a more flexible approach to work. But flexibility doesn’t always mean autonomy over pay and time. The gender pay gap persists even for women in self-employment — in the financial year ending 2016, full-time men and women in self-employment earned £363 and £243 per week respectively.

In reality, choice” over working hours and contracts is predetermined by income levels and gender.

When you include part-time work in the calculation the gap becomes much starker. This is because women do more part-time work than men, and, crucially, because part-time work is paid less hour for hour — two facts which are not unrelated.

When we rely on individuals’ personal choice to make decisions about labour patterns in this way, it tends to be women, not men, who opt for part-time and flexible work to meet care needs, reinforcing existing care-related gendered labour inequalities. In reality choice” over working hours and contracts is predetermined by income levels and gender.

This is proliferating the gender pay gap as women are over-represented in forms of insecure work like zero hours contracts, and year-on-year women need to work 67 more days than men to earn the same amount.

These issues won’t be solved overnight but there are some important first steps we can take:

  1. Alternative models of childcare delivery that embed childcare in the social fabric of our communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces to bring costs down and enable free universal provision
  2. A shorter working week — a 30 hour working week isn’t going to suddenly destabilise the patriarchy, but if made available for all employees in a particular workplace or sector, without a reduction in incomes, it would enable people of all genders to pursue their working lives whilst also freeing up more time for caring commitments. This in turn would limit negative impacts of women taking more time out of work than men and suffering a hit in pay and progression as a consequence
  3. A generous social security system fit for today’s changing world of work 
  4. A collective voice — we are also working with trade unions to build the collective power and voice of those at the sharp end of our low pay, high insecurity labour market. Union representation in care work is particularly low and should be a target for policy change on workers’ rights and collective bargaining.

If we are truly going level the playing field for women at work, we need to refresh the narrative around the gender pay gap. Pay inequality is a structural, not an individual, issue and so the solutions to this persistent problem are around countering the biases and imbalances that exist in the jobs market, not putting the onus on women to shout louder in the workplace in order to be heard.

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