RIGHT NOW BRITAIN is having a conversation about a problem all of us have known about for some time, the gender pay gap (GPG).
The right in British politics claim that the data that companies and public bodies with more than 250 workers have been forced to declare are meaningless, have been conflated with equal pay for work of equal value and that the legislation should be reversed. Liberals believe the data will help women ask for a pay rise.
But neither of these narratives is the answer. This is a complex issue with no single and simple solution. The GPG does highlight cases of unequal pay. Women with the same or greater skills and experience are being paid less than men in the same or broadly similar jobs. This happens even if there are transparent structures. Individuals, with union support, shouldn't shy away from tackling these cases.
Mostly the GPG highlights what we already know, that women are siloed into specific, often lower paid, areas of a workforce. Progression is more difficult for women, who make up a greater percentage of the part-time workforce, because they still bear responsibility for the majority of caring for the young and old. We also know that women are less mobile in the workforce, less able to change employers, and thus unable to take the opportunity to argue for better pay based on previous pay. The data also highlight that even when women reach the top, their work doesn't receive the same financial recognition as men in either pay or bonuses.
However, the information organisations have to declare is exceedingly crude, and if employers really do want to address the gap they will need to engage in a much more detailed pay audit, so they can begin to identify some of the causes. This is where unions need to step in, and demand that employers talk to them about what action needs to be taken. It is a great opportunity for unions to show their value to their members, recruit new ones and challenge the perception that they are stale, male and pale.
Companies often talk about corporate social responsibility, and the GPG gives them a chance to have a meaningful impact on society. Instead of blaming schools and universities for not producing the workers they need, they could offer worthwhile apprenticeships, with proper jobs at the end of them. Training programmes should have at least 50% women in the roles, continue throughout their career, and help women take up roles that they often shy away from.
They need to take the process of internal promotion seriously, not just hiring externally to plug gaps. Key to all of this is for employers to accept the many other pulls on workers', and particularly female workers', time. They shouldn’t see part-time work as a barrier to promotion, and should recognise just how much they get from part-time workers above and beyond what is required of them.
More than anything, though, we need a much bigger change in society, with everyone given the time and space to participate in the care of their children. There shouldn't be shared parental leave, but more parental leave - proper time off for both parents, with full pay so that the offer of the time isn't completely meaningless. There should also be more support and time given to those raising kids alone. Only when parenthood becomes a shared responsibility will women stop being punished for the time they take out to have children.
Women also disproportionately bear responsibility for caring for older relatives. This too needs to be properly recognised, with better support to help workers juggle this role, and paid time off when periods of extra support are required.
We need to start measuring success in life very differently. It shouldn't be measured by how many hours we spend at work, or how much money we make for a company, but by the way we care for those around us - our friends, family and community. The world of work needs to be radically re-imagined to ensure that the rest of people's lives isn't squeezed by their job as if it is an insignificant afterthought.
After all, we work to live, not live to work, and this is something we seem to have forgotten when the rush to make profits has led to such a dehumanising approach to workers. Such a radical change can only come from recognising that the GPG is everyone's problem, irrespective of gender, and we need to educate, agitate and organise at all levels of society to tackle it.
NUJ and Unite member and Walthamstow CLP