What did we learn from the newly released UK gender pay gap data?
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What did we learn from the newly released UK gender pay gap data?

12 Apr 2018

We took a look at what can be learned from the newly released figures about gender pay gaps in large organisations in the UK.

On 4 April 2018, the final deadline passed for UK-based organisations with 250 employees or more to publish and report specific figures about their gender pay gap.

With it came a deluge of illuminating figures about discrepancies in how men and women are compensated, understandably sparking lively debate about why pay gaps exist and how to address them.

Recap of the gender pay gap

A law to compel companies to disclose gender pay gap information was first tabled in 2010. In April 2017, the UK mandated that organisations of 250 or more publish data about their gender pay gaps within 12 months.

The gender pay gap is the difference between the average hourly earnings of men and women.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the gap between the median hourly earnings for men and women is at 18.4pc, up from 18.2pc in 2016.

The new figures show that eight in 10 UK companies and public-sector bodies pay men more. The Guardian reported on some of the worst offenders, including JP Morgan, tech giant Apple and Irish low-cost airline Ryanair.

Apple revealed when filing its figures that 71pc of its top-earning employees were male and that men were paid more across the three subsidiaries it was required to report on, including Apple UK.

Ryanair earned the unfortunate distinction of reporting the largest gender pay gap in the entire airline industry, at 72pc. In other words, women earn 28p for every £1 that a man earns. Women make up just 3pc of the top quarter of earners at the company.

Ryanair has argued that its gender pay gap is affected by the low numbers of female pilots. “In recent years, the number of female pilots applying to Ryanair has increased and we are committed to developing this welcome trend. It is a feature of the aviation industry that more males than females choose to enter the pilot profession.”

The industry breakdown

Financial Times journalist Billy Ehrenberg-Shannon has compiled detailed industry breakdowns and data visualisations of what can be gleaned from the reams of gender pay gap data disclosed.

Sectors with unequal pay structures, such as the finance and insurance industry, also ended up having the higher gaps. Professional, scientific and technical; education; and mining and quarrying also emerged as some of the most unequal industries.

Sectors such as health and social care, on the other hand, have smaller pay gaps, which Ehrenberg-Shannon attributes to the fact that these industries have more evenly distributed pay structures.

The science gender pay gap

Nature reported its analysis of the figures and concluded that the gender pay gap in science (such as universities, pharmaceutical companies, funders and science-focused organisations) is 50pc higher than the national average. Of the 172 organisations included in the analysis, 96pc pay men more than women.

“Much of an organisation’s pay gap comes down to how women and men are distributed through the ranks. Women are often overrepresented in low-paid and low-skilled jobs, whereas men are likely to make up the bulk of workers in senior and high-paid roles.”

Jeff Frank, an economist who studies gender pay gaps at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued that the gap would likely shrink if non-academic roles were stripped out, but also asserted that the professional pay gap exists because women wait longer to get promoted than men.

“There is evidence that universities remain discriminatory in their practices,” Frank added.

Why are women earning less?

It would be reductive to say that the gender pay gap is simply a matter of discrimination. That’s certainly a factor, but it’s one of many factors that contribute to structural inequality that, while it isn’t necessarily bolstered intentionally or with malice, needs to be addressed.

Gender equality organisation Fawcett Society outlined some of the key reasons that pay discrepancies exist. Women, for one, account for 61pc of those earning less than the real living wage and make up a large proportion of those in jobs that are ‘unskilled’. Even when women do complete degrees, however, the problem persists – graduates can expect to earn almost 23pc less than their male counterparts.

There are social pressures at play as well. Despite entering the workforce, women still do the lion’s share of housework and tend to be the ones primarily responsible for caring for children, the elderly or sick relatives. Motherhood incurs a pay penalty.

All of these things will be a drain on a woman’s energy that isn’t present to the same extent for the average man and, as a result, more women work part-time.

What can be done?

Data on its own won’t necessarily inspire change. The figures are illuminating and helpful but, unless they are followed by proactive steps to address inequality, the whole thing will amount to a pretty pointless exercise.

“The attention being drawn to pay inequality by the legal requirement to publish pay gap data is significant. However, its usefulness will be limited if attention isn’t paid to the underlying causes of the gap in wages between men and women.” writes KG Orphanides for Wired.

Iniatives such as shared parental leave and normalising flexible working and time off could go a long way towards allaying structural inequality. These measures would level the playing field and make it so that it is not only women whose presence in the workforce is diminished after becoming a parent.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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