Root cause of the gender pay gap no one is talking about

Jenny Lincoln, Business in the Community Gender Research and Policy Officer takes a look at the undervaluation of women throughout history and the affect this is having on today's gender pay gap.


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The most frequently discussed cause of the gender pay gap is the lack of women in top jobs. Whilst we do need more women in top positions, this is not the best measure of gender equality, and it will not solve the underlying cause of the gender pay gap. To enable real gender equality, we must tackle the root of the problem: we must stop undervaluing women.

Women and ‘femininity’ have been undervalued throughout modern history. In 1909, the government passed the Trade Boards Act to attempt to fix minimum wages in the most exploitative industries – the female-dominated ones. There were countless fights for fair pay for women in a range of different occupations, from teachers to civil servants, even when it had been proved that women were in fact just as capable and talented as their male counterparts.

The undervaluing of women is still prevalent today

Recent analysis of US census data from 1950 to 2000 found that employers ascribe a lower value to occupations that have become female-dominated, and consequently set lower levels of pay. This occurs even when those occupations still require the same education and skills.

On an individual level, women’s talent and capabilities are still perceived - unconsciously or consciously - as inferior to men’s. Members of university science faculties were asked to rate resumes, unaware that they had been assigned male or female names at random. Not only did they rate the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the identical female applicant, they also chose to offer a higher salary.

In a similar study, communications students were asked to rate publications for scientific quality, and they rated work they believed was written by female authors lower. Participants with biases included both men and women in both studies, which demonstrates how cultural and normalised undervaluing women is.

What needs to be done?

Focusing on women at the top is not enough to change a culture which, unconsciously or consciously, favours men. We must revalue the work women do, which includes giving the lowest paid workers (who are more likely to be women) a higher wage. At the same time, employers need to improve the position of women within the current structures – from the very bottom through to the top of the employment hierarchy.

In efforts to close the gender pay gap and achieve true equality, employers must give men and women the same opportunities and rights to shape decisions which impact their lives. Men and women must have the same access to paid work and development opportunities, to ensure economic independence throughout their lives.