Five myths about unequal pay

Gender GapAnd five retorts to help debunk them when the gender pay gap deniers are getting you down

The gender pay gap was in the news again last week, after a report found that at the current rate of change it would be another 60 years before women are paid equally to men. This comes hot on the heels of another report, which found the amount by which men out-earn women has increased – especially in London, where men are paid 13% morethan their female counterparts.

Being a feminist can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day: whatever we do or say, we’re doomed to fight the same battles, over and over again. This is especially true of the equal pay debate. So to make the pervasive myths slightly easier to debunk, here are five retorts. Ladies, if the continued experience of being devalued is getting you down, you can always distribute this piece to pay-gap naysayers. Off we go!

There is no gender pay gap

How depressing that we have to start with this one. And yet, needs must: a not-insignificant number of people don’t think the pay gap exists at all. These include Conservative Woman founder Laura Perrins, who appeared on Woman’s Hour with me last week and made this very argument.

Alas, there is a gender pay gap, and if the studies I’ve already quoted aren’t convincing enough, there’s always the extensive study from the UK government charting the changes in the pay gap over time (in short, it hasn’t gone away). Or why not listen to those Andrea Dworkins at the Confederation of British Industry, who recently urged the government to impose a target on reducing the gender pay gap. Yes, I’m afraid that outside of a small coterie of fanciful libertarians and determined anti-feminists, the existence of a gender pay gap is accepted fact.

The gender pay gap only exists because women have babies

Let’s have a brief mythbusting interlude here to point out that if this assertion were true, it would still constitute discrimination against women on the basis of sex, which is unacceptable. But in any case, it isn’t quite true. I say “quite” because it’s undeniable that the time women take off to become mothers – often out of necessity because of maternity leave arrangements and childcare costs – has an enormous impact on wages. But according to figures based on the Office of National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Incomes, the pay gap between men and women in their 20s has doubled since 2010. Meanwhile, across the pond, an extensive study by the American Association of University Women revealed that the pay gap sets in a year after graduation from college. According to Professor Marilyn Davidson, co-director of the Centre for Equality and Diversity at Work, women are “more likely to be offered less [pay] when they start a job, which automatically puts them on a lower level”.

The gender pay gap exists because women aren’t as assertive as men

The latest proponent of this myth is Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who recently argued that businesses often “unintentionally” create a gender pay gap because women aren’t as assertive as their male colleagues. I know, right? We girls just need to toughen up a bit. It’s not as though there’s a whole host of derogatory terms used to describe women who assert themselves. Oh, wait.

I’m rather spoilt for choice as to how to debunk this one: whether to go for individual stories of women being punished for their assertiveness, orbroad studies that show women are penalised when they exhibit the “tough” behaviour for which their male colleagues are praised. Sara Laschever, co-author of the book Why Women Don’t Ask, can have the final word: “We like girls to be nice, pliable, pleasant, accommodating, while boys are taught to be self-promoting, to be a little tough guy.” In other words, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Women aren’t ambitious enough to pursue top jobs

Before we bust this myth, we need to talk about who decides what the top jobs are and how they are financially rewarded. Across the world, traditional, stereotypically female work is low-status and low-paid (think cleaner, childminder, nurse, beautician) and is often simply a version of the caring roles women are expected to undertake for free in a family environment. Many women want to break into traditionally male sectors (science and technology, construction and so on) but they have to fight for a place against deeply held prejudices once they have attained the practical qualifications. Besides, who says a scientist deserves more pay and prestige than, say, a nurse? If you ask this feminist, this is a case of the systematic devaluation of women’s social roles more generally.

Even so, women are as ambitious as men. They are just not rewarded for it (see previous myth for explanation). The US research organisation Catalyst, for example, found that among MBA graduates on a traditional career track, women are even more likely than men to seek out skill-building experiences and training opportunities and to make their achievements visible by asking for feedback and promotions. But, Catalyst concludes, “when women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less”.




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