Closing The Gender Pay Gap: Are we nearly there yet?

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By Professor Fiona Carmichael, Dr Marco Ercolani, and Dr Scott Taylor
University of Birmingham

Workplace gender inequality is a global phenomenon. The ‘gender pay gap’ (GPG), measuring the difference between men’s and women’s mean or median wages, is the most evident and direct manifestation of gender inequality, and shows how far we have to go in achieving just and inclusive workplaces.

The gender pay gap exists because higher paid roles tend to be male dominated and the lowest paid tend to be female dominated. It therefore differs from the concept of ‘pay inequality’, which refers to unequal pay for equal work, which has been illegal since the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

It is clear that if we simply wait for pay and recognition in the workplace for women to become equal ‘naturally’, without intervention, it is unlikely to happen. The Fawcett Society estimates the current rate of progress means a wait of around a century, assuming continuous change. That means the first generation to be paid equally would be born at the beginning of the next century. And of course progress in this area is patchy and unpredictable – between 2014 and 2017 there was little or no change.

This means that women’s economic independence remains lower than men’s, women’s pensions payments remain lower than men’s, and organisations benefit from women’s skills and experience without always paying for their true value.

And yet women’s visibility at work has never been higher. Many women occupy positions of power that were impossible to reach only fifty years ago, well within living memory. At the same time, a few prominent high achieving women does not show equality of opportunity or outcomes. The GPG shows this clearly, from unequal graduate job salary offers to unequal pensions.

Fortunately, the GPG can be easily measured, as the new statutory requirement for 250+ employee organisations to complete a gender audit of pay shows. Most striking is the fact that the GPG adversely affects women in more than 80% of UK workplaces. The higher education sector is heavily implicated in this with a GPG of 18.4% in 2018 compared to a national average of 9.7%.

A cursory look at the pre-pandemic UK Quarterly Labour Force Survey in 2019 quarter 4, based on our own calculations, confirms these stylized facts.[1] For those aged 21 to 64 in employment, mean male and female hourly wages are £18.10 and £15.53 respectively, a difference of 15.3%. Mean weekly pay for males and females are £730.82 and £503.12 respectively, a difference of 37%. When comparing labour market activity for all those aged 21 to 64, we see the following differences:

Activity: Male % Female %
Employed 84.38 75.06
Unemployed 2.43 2.25
Inactive 13.19 22.68
Total 100% 100%

Very similar patterns are observed using the latest 2020q4 LFS data, during the COVID-19 pandemic.[2]

Further analysis shows that GPG reflects fundamental structural inequalities in organisations and in society. In other words, it is not an accident, it is designed into workplaces and professions, from the shop floor to the boardroom. Research consistently shows that it takes longer for women to progress to the same level of seniority at work. Although junior female staff receive similar starting salaries as their male counterparts initially, they rapidly come to earn less than men, are evaluated more harshly in promotion applications, and occupy positions that are not as highly regarded as those usually occupied by men.

What is clear above all from all academic research in this area is that the GPG is not created because women ‘self-select’ out of well-paid high profile roles. The valorisation of masculine traits, judging people through stereotypes, ‘boys clubs’, women being excluded from decision making bodies, are all crucial.

There are some easy solutions: mandatory training on, for example, unconscious bias is a good start, but has to be reinforced by requirements to show how gender balance is being encouraged in selection and promotion panels, job grading and performance management, and above all in pay. Harder solutions involve restructuring workplaces, or providing more and better state-funded childcare to mitigate those career interruptions that more often adversely affect women than men. The most important conclusion of all research in this area is that inaction will maintain inequality, and inequality is bad for people, business, and society.

This blog was written as part of the Long Road to Workplace Equality workshop which can be watched here.

[1] Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), Office for National Statistics, Social Survey Division. (2020). Quarterly Labour Force Survey, October – December, 2019. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8614, Variables used include: AGE, SEX, HOURPAY, GRSSWK and ILODEFR.

[2] Office for National Statistics, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. (2021). Quarterly Labour Force Survey, September – November, 2020. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8760,

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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