A young woman in a blue blazer sitting on a stage smiling. She’s speaking at a conference about the gender pay gap.
Maya Raghu at Workhuman. Image: Steven Miller Photography

The gender pay gap: Is the problem getting worse?

2 Apr 2019

There is a serious gender pay gap. There have been measures to close that gap. But how effective are they? What else can we do?

Today (2 April) marks Equal Pay Day in the US. This date symbolises how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year, highlighting the gender pay gap.

Equal Pay Day began with the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 as a public awareness event for the gender pay gap.

In recent years, there have been measures put in place all across the world to rectify the gender pay gap.

At the beginning of 2018, Iceland made gender pay gaps illegal by making it a requirement for organisations to prove they are not discriminating against women in employee compensation.

This time last year, the final deadline passed for UK-based organisations with 250 employees or more to publish and report specific figures about their gender pay gap. The figures found that eight in 10 UK companies and public sector bodies pay men more.

The purpose of gender pay gap reports is to highlight in black and white where the problems lie as a starting point to force change among companies. A year after the UK’s final deadline, there is still a lot of talk around the impending likelihood of the same measures being brought to Irish shores.

But are these measures enough? Has the gender pay gap gotten any better? Sadly, there is still a long way to go. To take even one example, a new report from Owl Labs shows how remote work plays a part in the gender pay gap. The report found that among men and women who always work remotely, there is a pay gap of 25 percentage points.

This is fairly stark when you consider research earlier this year, which states that a gender pay gap of as little as 2.6pc can cost a woman $500,000 over her lifetime.

At Workhuman 2019, I attended a discussion on the gender pay gap with Dr Patti Fletcher, Laurie Ruettimann, Lauren Zajac and Maya Raghu. The women talked about the murky waters of tackling the gender pay gap, touching on many related issues including pay secrecy, harassment and the bias that still occurs for mothers. They even referenced a Stanford study that highlights how men who are fathers are often rewarded at work, while women who are mothers are penalised.

It’s hard to avoid feeling grim about the data around the gender pay gap, but I wanted to know more about what can be done to help narrow that gap, even a little bit. I caught up with Raghu after the session to find out.

As the director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington DC, Raghu works on a range of issues addressing women’s economic security and employment opportunity, including pay equity, sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination.

‘Even when you control for things like education, occupation, region, skills, there’s still a significant part of the gap that’s unexplained’

She said that when it comes to changing practices or culture that may contribute to the gender pay gap, it must come from the top down and from senior leaders. “They are the ones who can drive that change and approve the dedication of resources and time that it takes to see these changes through because it’s not easy,” she said. “Culture change in particular takes a very long time, sometimes many years. There is a lot that businesses can be doing themselves without waiting for the law to change.”

The problem with pay secrecy

One of the major barriers for women facing a wage gap is pay secrecy in the office. “One of the things [employers] can say is to make an internal commitment to create more transparency around pay,” said Raghu. “They could just say to their employees, ‘It’s OK for you to talk to each other and share information about what you make if that’s what you want to do.’ They could also provide employees with information about the salary range for their job.”

She said employers should give their employees more information about how their compensation system works and how they set salaries. “Then people understand it more without necessarily making public everyone’s salary.”

Just as companies should not be waiting around for the law to tell them what to do, I don’t want women to feel like they have to wait around for their organisations to make the necessary changes either. I asked Raghu what women can do to defend themselves against the gender pay gap when their companies aren’t doing enough.

She said gaining information is key, which is why pay secrecy is such a big problem.

“You have to be careful that you don’t endanger your job by doing this, but you can start collecting information by talking to other people that you work with – if they’re willing – or former employees, and gather information.

“For some companies, you can get an idea of what positions pay by going on Glassdoor or PayScale; you can talk to friends who are in the industry to get information from them, and arm yourself with that information before you go in to have that difficult conversation.”

Same pay, more work?

It’s not just the literal pay gap that needs to be considered. On paper, where women and men in the same role are paid the same amount, it’s important to look beyond that figure to ensure there isn’t a slightly different version of a pay gap going on.

Invisible work and unpaid labour are serious problems for women, and not just in relation to the 75pc of the world’s unpaid care done by women. Even within the context of paid labour, women will often, for various reasons, end up taking on thankless volunteer tasks. So, while a woman in the same role as her male peer might earn the same amount, are they really doing the same amount of work?

“I think part of it again goes to culture change and some of that unconscious bias,” said Raghu. “People automatically assume that because women are caregivers or traditionally have been in these lower-paying jobs that they should be taking care of these administrative tasks, and it happens even at higher-paying jobs too.”

She said a good place to start when it comes to those tasks is to do something that interrupts the normal decision-making process that may be influenced by unconscious bias or women feeling the need to volunteer. “Something we do in our own organisation is whenever you have a meeting, instead of always making the most junior person take the notes or always have a woman take the notes, just do a random rotation or set up a schedule,” she said.

Gender pay gap reports

As I mentioned, the looming enforcement of gender pay gap reports in Ireland is at the forefront of many law firm discussions. And while no official deadline has been set, a law that mirrors the UK’s mandatory pay gap report is expected to hit Ireland in the near future.

However, a Mercer 2018 Ireland Gender Pay Gap Snapshot Survey showed that while 67pc of companies were worried about how gender pay gap reports would affect their reputation, 70pc of organisations had yet to even examine whether any gender pay gap exists within their company.

While gender wage gap reporting is on the whole a good thing, shining a light on pay discrepancies between men and women, Raghu said the UK example shows that countries may not be prepared for what should come next, and again advised companies to take ownership of the necessary actions.

“Even a year after the law [in the UK] went into effect, there is still significant underreporting or misreporting and the government doesn’t have a lot of tools to hold companies accountable,” she said. “Don’t wait for the law to go into effect – be conducting your own pay analysis or audits, and start looking for any issues and correcting for them before you have to start reporting that data.”

The gender pay gap is undeniable, yet many companies and employers still like to bury their heads in the sand and say they don’t have a problem, especially given how expensive it can be to fix it. After all, Salesforce shelled out $6m to close its own pay gap. However, it’s vital that all companies examine their compensation systems to help rectify any problems they may unknowingly have.

“Even when you control for things like education, occupation, region, skills, there’s still a significant part of the gap that’s unexplained so you can’t just write that off to women choose lower-paying jobs or women choose to work part-time because they want to be with the children,” said Raghu. “All those things are part of our society and culture that tell women that they should choose certain types of jobs.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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