The gender pay gap – trimming branches or tackling at root?

Theresa May stood outside Downing Street in July and listed a series of “burning injustice(s)” she pledged her Government would fight. The listed included the fact that “if you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.” 

Less than six weeks later the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report into the gender wage gap has underlined the challenge our new Prime Minister faces.  On average women in paid work receive about 18% less per hour than men.

It shows the key reason is more women than men work part-time or flexibly – because they are disproportionately responsible for unpaid caring and need to combine their responsibilities at work and home.  This needs to be addressed.  But I’ll get to that.

These part-time options are less well paid with fewer opportunities for career progression than full-time work.  Only 8.7% of quality job vacancies (those that pay over £20,000 full time equivalent or more) are advertised as being open to some kind of flexibility – compared with 20.2% among lower paid jobs. 

So women often find themselves trapped in low paid work where they are unable to progress.  They stay because they are afraid that they won’t find working arrangements that suit their childcare pattern elsewhere.  These fears aren’t unfounded - quality part-time and flexible jobs are few and far between.  So the gender pay gap persists.

Often the twin challenge of finding affordable, available childcare (which couples tend to assume should be deducted from women’s salaries) and reasonably well-paid, part-time and flexible employment is insurmountable – and women leave employment.  Clearly when they return they will have missed out on any interim wage growth and opportunities to upskill – so the gender pay gap persists.

Childcare can be a deciding factor in terms of women continuing in employment after children are born.  But addressing this is only part of the picture.  Key is ensuring more quality part-time and flexible jobs – jobs with career and wage progression – in the UK labour market.  As well as reporting on pay we’d like to see employers reporting on the steps they have taken to embed flexible working in their organisations, including whether or not they have taken a ‘flexible by default’ approach to recruitment.  This would open up choice for women - and men - helping tackle that persistent gender pay gap. 

But what about women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid caring?  While women’s choices are more limited the gender pay gap will surely remain.  The barriers to using shared parental leave – encouraging fathers to share care early on - must be tackled to make it a realistic option for new parents.  We disagree it should be extended to other groups like grandparents – before it starts working for fathers. 

If Theresa May is serious about achieving parental choice around shared care and reducing the gender pay gap, she might consider bringing in three months non-transferable paid leave for fathers.  Ideally this would be supported by the introduction of a free childcare hours allowance for children aged under two – to help bridge the gap between the end of maternity and parental leave in the first year of life and children starting school.  These kinds of game-changing policies would get to the root of the gender pay gap - helping eliminate it for good – and unlock the talent of women for the benefit of employers and the economy in post-Brexit Britain.

Sarah Jackson is CEO of Working Families - the UK’s leading work-life balance charity.  October 3-7 is National Work Life Week – find more information here.