November 4th: Today women stop earning relative to men

Today is Equal Pay Day – the day in the year that UK women stop earning relative to men – and usually one of the biggest in the Fawcett campaigning calendar. Of course, this year it can’t help but be overshadowed by the allegations that the Whistles-produced ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts are implicated in global wage inequalities.

Our investigations into the t-shirts are continuing. We have some reassuring information to hand but – having well and truly learned our lessons – are double and triple-checking them with the help of experts on ethical fashion. We expect to release a statement later on today.

In the mean time, we expect our supporters would not want us to be silent on what is a very important day. So, here is our official blog for Equal Pay Day 2014 – which, due to the widening gap, is occurring 3 days earlier than last year.

More than 40 years after the Dagenham strikes and the Equal Pay Act, women’s earnings are still considerably lower than men’s – with the ‘gender pay gap’ sitting at 15.7% for full-time workers. This means that women effectively work for free for nearly two months of the year.

And, worryingly, the situation is getting worse. In 2013, the gender pay gap widened again for the first time in five years, jumping by 0.9%. It’s not surprising, then, that last week we received news that the UK had slipped in the World Economic Forum (WEF) rankings of gender equal societies from 18th to 26th and now sits behind 14 European countries, the US, Rwanda and Nicaragua (just to name a few!).

So why is there still such a big earnings gap between men and women? One reason is the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. The gender pay gap dramatically opens up around the time most women are having children. It is 4% for those aged 22-29, but rises to 11% in the 30-39 age bracket and to a staggering 24% for those aged 40-49.

Calling this phenomenon the ‘motherhood penalty’ is, however, something of a misnomer. It suggests that it is a logical, and perhaps even inevitable, consequence of women having children.

Yet, having children does not need to spell the end of a woman’s career. There is a mountain of evidence showing that many women end up under-employed due to a lack of quality part-time and flexible working opportunities. In Fawcett’s recent survey of 1,000 low paid women – all earning below £7.44 per hour – some 22% had degree-level qualifications and one-third described themselves as over-qualified for their current job.

To change this, we urgently need to ensure that employers are brought into the 21st Century to offer flexible and part-time working at all levels of the organisation. The public sector should lead by example and advertise all jobs on a flexible basis, unless there is a clear business case for not doing so. Of course, we also need to ensure that childcare responsibilities are shared more equally between men and women. To this end, we are calling for increased maternity and paternity pay – we know that the low level of pay  remains one of the biggest deterrents to increased uptake among men – and a ‘use it or lose it’ component to father’s leave.

But the ‘motherhood penalty’ is not the only contributor to the gender pay gap. Occupational segregation which sees women clustered in low-wage sectors, such as the care industry, and men predominate in high-wage sectors, such as IT and finance, also plays a role. Overall, women are significantly over-represented among the low-paid – making up 59% of those earning below the living wage.

And the shape of the emerging recovery is making these trends worse. We have seen a profound  ‘hollowing out’ of the economy with jobs being created, on the one hand, at the high-wage end (where men tend to predominate) and, on the other, in low-wage feminised sectors. There has also been a marked loss of public sector jobs – where the pay gap is smaller – and growth in part-time and insecure jobs in the private sector (zero-hours contracts the most extreme example). Our research on low-paid women showed that, compared to the start of the crisis, there are now 826,000 more women in work that can be described as low paid and insecure.

We are also, therefore, calling for a government strategy to ensure that there are quality jobs. This means regulating to stop exploitation, such as the zero-hours contracts, and immediate action on low pay. New research published by Fawcett today, and conducted by Landmann Economics, shows that lifting the national minimum wage to the Living Wage would reduce the gender pay gap by 0.8% (see our website for the full analysis). While this may seem small, this compares to a very slow pace of change historically that has seen the gap close by just 6.2% in 13 years. And, of course, lifting the national minimum wage would have huge benefits beyond closing the gender pay gap  for all those on low pay that are currently struggling to make ends meet as living costs continue to rise.

Finally, the actions of the mainly-female ASDA shopworkers launching a legal claim because they are paid up to £4 less than their primarily male colleagues in the warehouse reminds us that indirect discrimination is still a very real issue too. Worryingly, since the introduction of upfront employment tribunal fees sex discrimination cases have fallen by 91%, suggesting that many women are being priced out of justice. We are calling for the fees to be revoked. Anything less – some 44 years after the Dagenham strikes – is not good enough. The time to act is now.

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Eva Neitzert
Eva is Deputy CEO at the Fawcett Society