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Women should not have to go cap in hand for more pay

The only way is up... but the gender pay gap is resistant to change
Chief Business Commentator

The British gender pay gap has remained stubbornly high ever since the government legislated to force employers to publish their yearly numbers. 

The Office for National Statistics put it at 8.9 per cent for full-time employees last year. If also found that women are paid an average of £380,000 over their lifetimes compared with £643,000 for men. That’s a mismatch that ought to appal anyone with a belief in equality and social justice, regardless of their gender. 

Employment law specialist Slater & Gordon today cast light on one of the reasons why, despite the publicity the issue has received, and the embarrassment caused to some very big employers with very big pay gaps, it has narrowed by just half a percentage point since 2012. Surveying 1,000 working women, it found 82 per cent have never negotiated pay when applying for a job.  

Half feel underpaid, yet nearly three-quarters of those that do (71 per cent) admit they have never challenged their bosses about the issue. So not only do they not negotiate on the way in, they are much less likely to do so while on the job. The survey cited concerns about appearing “rude” or “ungrateful” as reasons for this not happening. Working women were also worried about potentially jeopardising benefits such as maternity leave and/or flexible working. 

Now, there are those who would put the onus on the individual to change the situation, by parking those concerns and taking control by banging on their bosses’ door. And it’s true that the law firm found that those who do so have a good record – a 70 per cent success rate, in fact. 

The report also offers some suggestions for those inspired to take the plunge: take the emotion out of your discussions, make a business case for why you’re worth more, research the market and use this to back up your case, keep the negotiations friendly but formalised. Sound advice. The trouble is that it feels a little glib. It’s one thing to read things like that on paper, quite another to knock on the door of the boss and say something like: “Please, sir, can I have some more than the thin gruel I’m getting?” 

Perhaps we should turn our guns not on the individual but on employers, who may be hurting themselves through having allowed this situation to develop. By forcing people to stamp their feet and negotiate to secure pay rises, they could ultimately end up deploying resources badly because they will end up paying up for those who shout loudest rather than those who work best. They also put themselves at a heightened risk of losing the latter to employers who handle these situations better, not something you want to do in a tight labour market like the one we have at the moment. 

Proper transparency during the pay, promotion and rewards process to minimise the negotiation imbalance was a favoured solution of about a third of those surveyed, and it’s a good one. This chimes with the findings of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is concerned about closing the profession’s gender pay gap, currently 10.8 per cent (mean) and 11.4 per cent (median), and has considered how that might be done. 

In a report of its own, also out today, it calls for the implementation of “transparent pay structures and grades, reviewing promotion criteria and introducing flexible working options for senior roles”. Could it be we’re moving towards something of a consensus here? That would be quite the radical notion in today’s Britain.

Ideas like that ultimately flow from employers committing to changing their approach when it comes to how they allocate pay, to accepting that they need to reward good employees before they have to ask. Take that step and the gender pay gap should decline. It could also help with the other pay gaps that exist. I’m thinking here about those for black and minority ethnic workers and disabled workers.