Gender equality is not purely monetary

We have seen businesses labelled sexist by pay gap data. But these statistics serve only to reinforce gender divides.

The Baltimore 2018 Women's March (source: Wikipedia)

April 2018 marks the first month in which British companies with over 250 employees are legally required to publish their gender pay gap data. Cue newspaper headlines, outing the country’s most renowned enterprises as being sexist, discriminatory and regressive in their practices.

I am a feminist who takes issue with headlines implying that women earn less than their male counterparts for equal work. This is very rarely true, and young women should not be graduating with this belief in mind – a belief which subliminally undercuts their self-worth and fuels resentment before having even established themselves as able professionals.

Equal pay is not synonymous with the gender pay gap, and legislation including the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Equality Act (2010) ensures that all individuals performing like-for-like work are receiving identical salaries. This is not without exception, of course. Unlawful gender discrimination is an ongoing concern, but this accounts for a negligible proportion of the gap.

Our growing obsession with pay gap figures is portraying gender equality as a monetary issue. This is far from what it is. In response to recent objection, six of the BBC’s highest-earning male staff have agreed to take pay cuts in a bid to remedy the gap. Shedding public light on the company’s gender imbalance is a step in the right direction, yet these kind of band-aid solutions and so-called female empowerment schemes are failing to look beyond the facts.

As a firm believer of equal opportunity, I would not want a pay raise to compensate for my lack of testosterone. Contemporary Britain seems far too invested in gender-related injustices to consider factors which should determine income. Considerations such as occupation, experience, age and education, along with a number of qualitative factors including diligence, flexibility and willingness to work in unpleasant or dangerous environments. The gender pay gap takes none of these into account. The majority of published statistics also omit part-time work. This is a female-dominated field and, when based purely on part-time employment, last year’s pay gap stood at -5.1% in favour of women.

A women’s decision to work part-time is too often shaped by societal expectations and the need for physical and emotional recovery post-childbirth. This is not always the case, and when statistics are broken down and viewed in terms of occupational segregation, much of the gender pay gap falls down to the different career paths chosen by men and women. Many of the most distinguished professional fields take root in a history of male influence which, many would argue, serves as a disadvantage to female candidates. This element of choice must nonetheless be respected.

Within Oxford, the traditionally highest-paying undergraduate degrees are still attracting male-dominated applicant pools. Engineering Sciences, for example, saw 2152 male applicants compared to 689 female from 2014 to 2016. Among the ‘typically lowest-paid’ degrees we have Fine Art and Art History, together attracting just 211 male applicants and 870 female.

In order to achieve complete equality in the workplace, it may seem reasonable to address the stark differences in subject choices at the earlier stages of our education. The problem with this is that our decisions are influenced by gender-typical characteristics. A man should not be assumed to bear masculine traits. Nor must a woman radiate femininity. Yet with this in mind, studies have identified certain characteristics as being typically female and typically male. Female traits include sensitivity and the desire to nurture; a logical reason for which professions such as early childhood education, social work and counselling continue to be dominated by women, and just so happen to pay below-average wages.    

The UK’s median pay gap of 9.1% is a result of female underrepresentation in highest-paying professions. Oxford, as written in the University’s 2018 Gender Pay Gap Report, “is no exception when it comes to gender equality”. This is widely recognised as the root of the problem – hence the University’s initiatives to increase the proportion of women in positions of leadership. Somerville College notes that women are overrepresented in the lowest paid roles such as housekeeping staff or ‘scouts’, as they are colloquially known among students. With the knowledge that scouts are lumped together with fellows, professors and principles in the same pay gap calculation, Oxford’s statistics suddenly seem a lot less informative and worthy of further clarification. The same applies to national figures.

Publishing data which provocatively draws boundaries between male and female employment will not solve the issue at stake, but exacerbates a gender divide which need not exist in an inclusive feminist society. Workplace equality will only be realised by putting an end to this checkbox-like analysis which classifies individuals according to a single variable. The implication of recent gender pay gap statistics is that the average woman earns less than the average man because she is female. Besides from being factually inaccurate, this observation overlooks the issue of persistent gender imbalance across employment sectors – the primary cause of the wage gap. This uneven distribution does not lay the groundwork for a future of absolute equality, yet a perfectly equal spread is not necessarily in accordance with our end-goal. A wage gap of 0% will not engender equality.