Why are we still banging on about the gender pay gap?

Claire Hynes
Claire Hynes

Today is the day that, on average, women in effect stop getting paid.

I mean, we’re in charge. Look at us at Mr President – women leading the agency. And around us in the ad industry, the number of women in senior positions seems to have mushroomed over the past few years. Women are everywhere, it seems. And out beyond our advertising bubble into the wider world of work – yep, quite a lot of ladies at the top of the tree there too.

It’s all looking good on the equality front. We’re probably nearly there. Nothing to complain about. Almost makes you feel sorry for the chaps. Who’d want the misfortune of being male in this glorious golden age for women?

Except that’s not the reality, is it? Because, as we are reminded every year when the Office for National Statistics present its gender pay gap data, when it comes to realising your career earning potential, being male is a very handy place to start. 

The numbers tell it like it is. Somehow, despite the progress and the visible senior jobs, women in the UK are paid just 82p for every £1 their male colleagues receive. In some sectors, such as finance, it’s as low as 72p. The gender pay gap is real and it’s not going away. In fact, it’s getting worse.

An apparently positive nugget that made headlines this year is that the pay gap is said to have closed in the under-40s when comparing full-time workers.

But dig deeper into that age group and you realise that across all employees the pay gap actually widens from the age of 30, as this coincides with an increase in part-time working from this age. The pay gap in the over-40s is still huge and for the over-50s wider than it has ever been. In senior roles, such as managers and directors, the pay gap has widened by 2% in the past year. As someone on the "wrong side" of 40 and in a senior role myself, this is the part of it all that I find the most depressing.

Of course, it makes sense that it would be the over-40s where the pay gap is most pronounced. We all know that the gender pay gap has its roots in the structural inequality of society, where women bear the brunt of domestic and care work. Women are disproportionately carers and child-rearers and this has a colossal long-term impact on their earning potential north of 40. 

I vividly remember returning to work after having my second child to find that my senior role no longer existed as a result of a company merger. Never mind that I had earned my place at the senior table; my absence during maternity leave simply left me out of the picture when all the important decisions took place, at a time that was crucial for my career.

The really shocking thing is how common an experience this is for women in business. In retrospect, I feel very fortunate that this was in fact the catalyst for me setting up Mr President with my brilliant partners, but women shouldn’t ever feel forced to set up their own businesses as the only way out of the equality headache. 

Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady has warned that the gender pay gap will persist for decades, unless there is more action to help women close the gap with male workers. No wonder, then, that the gender pay gap is political.

The main political parties are promising to support working parents better in their upcoming campaign manifestos, with the Liberal Democrats pledging an ambitious 35 hours of free childcare per week from when a baby is nine months old – something that would enable working mothers to return to full-time work sooner and help bridge those early years that have such an impact on earning potential. While this level of government support might currently seem like a pipe dream, it is these sorts of "radical" proposals that we actually need to redress the gender balance in our society.  

How else to speed it up other than giving women the top roles so they can implement the change themselves? Demand the data is shared. Transparency is a key driver to making change, as we’ve witnessed since it became a legal obligation for large companies to publish their gender pay data.

But why not make it mandatory for those companies of 250 people and fewer as well? When the truth of the pay gap is brought out into the cold light of day for us all to scrutinise, it makes it very difficult to ignore. It’s why the Fawcett Society is today calling for a change in the law to give women "the right to know" what a male colleague earns, if they suspect pay discrimination for equivalent roles. 

So, behind the tales of progress and empowerment – or, worse, the "it’s gone too far" stories of women taking over creative departments and eradicating the old white men – lies the bald evidence of the ongoing issue. We get 82p still for every £1 the men get. This is why we’re still banging on about the gender pay gap and why She Says and Mr President decided to make the "Pay gap pound". To remind everyone of the worsening statistics and as a mark of our own commitment to press for change.

Claire Hynes is chief executive of Mr President

Picture: Getty Images

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