Why the gender pay gap is the employer's fault and not women's

Last month a survey from the Young Women’s Trust reported that one in 10 employers admit to paying women less than men for doing the same job. Although these findings are shocking – after all, unequal pay has been illegal since 1970 – they are sadly not surprising.

Women are blaming themselves for the pay gap

Business in the Community’s research shows that almost half of female employees believe that there is currently unequal pay within their own organisations, and that two-thirds of women think the gap is due to women being less demanding in pay reviews and negotiations. For comparison, less than a quarter of men thought this was the reason for the gender pay gap. In short, women are blaming themselves for the pay gap – and employers are taking advantage of this belief to continue rewarding men and women unfairly for the same job.

This isn’t helped by the constant stream of media messaging that women are too pessimistic, not confident enough, too shy, not loud enough. It all adds up to one consistent message: that it’s women, not the system, that need fixing in order to close the gender pay gap. So if it’s not women, what’s causing the pay gap? Structural factors.

Not all women can “negotiate”

People who say that women should negotiate harder speak from a position of privilege and with the assumption that these women are all working in middle-class office jobs. Most women aren’t in that situation. Women represent the majority of workers on exploitative zero-hours contracts in the UK; such contracts are most widely used in the care sector, where women make up 80 per cent of the workforce. In those sectors, most women are not in a position to negotiate their salaries, and we need the focus to shift from blaming the women to changing the culture within organisations if we want to create real change.

The government’s regulations for gender pay gap reporting, which came into force earlier this year, will help employers understand where there are pay gaps in their organisation. However, simply publishing a set of figures is not a magic bullet. They need to find out why they exist to understand how to tackle them. In 2017, employees expect equal pay but they will also need greater transparency in decision-making – not only in pay but in recruitment, performance, appraisals and promotion decisions.

Blaming the women won’t solve the gender pay gap, strategic action will

If employers want to tackle their pay gap, they will have to look into the root causes of inequality, from reducing bias and increasing transparency in recruitment, appraisal and promotion processes to normalising agile working and offering financially viable parental leave packages for all parents, as well as looking at specific groups of women within the organisation – such as over 50s or ethnic minority women - to understand where gender pay gaps are largest.

Transparency will help but won’t be enough. A recent survey shows that 81 per cent of UK employees want more accountability. Employers need to take responsibility for their pay gap and change the workplace culture to break down structural barriers to true gender equality – or risk never achieving it at all.