How can it be that decades after pioneers began fighting for equality in the workplace, it still seems so far out of reach?
Why unequal pay should be as socially unacceptable as sexual harassment
In the recent film Battle of the Sexes, the 1970s tennis star Billie Jean King is shown asking the organisers of the US Open why male finalists are paid eight times as much as women. “We couldn’t possibly afford [equal pay],” she is told. And besides: “The men have families to support.”
Four decades later, all four major tennis tournaments pay equal prize money, but there is still a significant gender pay gap in the sport, and in every industry across the world. Analysing the problem last year the consulting firm Accenture concluded that, globally, a man is paid $140 for every $100 paid to a woman.
Nor is this the only injustice women face at work. When Billie Jean King attended the Golden Globe Awards last week with Emma Stone, who plays her in Battle of the Sexes, it was in sombre black, which awardgoers had agreed to wear in solidarity with victims of the sexual harassment that has shamed the film industry in recent months.
How can it be that decades after pioneers such as King began fighting for women’s rights in the workplace, equality still seems so far out of reach? There is no simple, Hollywood-style narrative – which is why the problem has been such a challenge to solve.
The most well-rehearsed version is that women, as childbearers, are at a natural disadvantage in having to take time out of the labour market. They are more likely than men to work part time after having children (especially if their husbands work long hours), and will struggle to get their earnings back on track later. In countries where childcare options are more limited, mothers may struggle to return to work at all.
Campaigners say the solution is for fathers to take more responsibility for their children. “As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home,” wrote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her 2013 book, Lean In. Once the birth and breastfeeding are over, childcare duties can (and in Sandberg’s view should) be evenly split. As a cultural shift this may take time to bring about, but several European countries are nudging things forward by offering shared parental leave, allowing both parents to take paid leave after the arrival of a child.
It helps that businesses are starting to adopt agile working as standard, realising that it makes them more efficient. In one example, Microsoft scrapped plans for a new building at its UK headquarters, saving millions of pounds, after implementing flexible and remote working. If everyone has variable hours, fathers are able to take on more childcare and there is no stigma for mothers who wish to work part time. Domestic concerns are not the whole picture, however. Research shows that women earn less than men from the beginning of their careers, even if they remain childless. This suggests that employers simply view them differently, says Meriel Schindler, head of employment at the law firm Withers Worldwide, who negotiates salaries and handles grievances for top executives.
“I do not think that companies set out to pay men and women differently, but there is still a high level of unconscious bias among employers, with assumptions made about what men and women can do and what is valuable,” she says.
The bias goes back even further, to parents and educators. One US study found that while girls often outperformed boys in a name-blind maths test, teachers would award higher scores to papers bearing boys’ names. Meanwhile, the construction toy company Lego markets vehicles and robotics to boys, and hair salons and ice-cream parlours to girls. Small wonder women are far less likely to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at university, or go on to careers in finance.
In most countries women are also underrepresented in leadership roles and on company boards. For Sandberg this is again the result of unconscious bias that begins when young girls who show leadership qualities are described as “bossy” and ends with professional women hitting a glass ceiling. While Accenture’s research found that UAE women are more likely to aspire to senior roles than men, in practice they rarely become top earners.
Legislation has narrowed the gap in like-for-like salaries, establishing the principle of equal pay for equal work in most developed countries so that women can take their employer to court if they believe they have been discriminated against. Iceland has even made it illegal to pay men more than women – companies that cannot show pay equality will face fines under a law that came into force on January 1. Yet female employees are still being paid less than male counterparts in the same jobs, either because of the old-fashioned attitudes of their employers, or because they lack the confidence to negotiate top salaries.
This was illustrated in the US when Hoda Kotb took over at the NBC News show Today from Matt Lauer, who was fired after a sexual harassment scandal. Before his disgrace, Lauer earned an estimated US$25 million (Dh91.83m) a year; his replacement has been awarded $7m. Women rarely challenge such imbalances, as raising a formal grievance is stressful and potentially career-ending. Interestingly, in countries where salary information is publicly available, there is a much lower pay gap (6 per cent in Sweden) between men and women doing the same jobs. The UK has introduced a less bold option where larger employers must compile and publish their pay gap data.
“Governments almost don’t need to enforce equal pay legislation because the court of public opinion will punish companies that have pay gaps, especially if they misrepresent them,” says Meriel Schindler. “If you read the BBC’s gender pay gap report, they tried to say that they had a demographic problem, with more women in a lower-paid quartile. They didn’t actually deal with the question of people within the same grade, which is what’s in the spotlight with Carrie Gracie’s resignation.”
Gracie resigned as the BBC’s China editor last week after discovering she was being paid 50 per cent less than her male peers.
The best current example of how transparency can generate overnight change is the Harvey Weinstein scandal. While the producer’s story is an extreme example of a man using his power to exploit women at work, it has led to what seems like a cultural sea change. The #MeToo campaign has empowered women across the world to challenge sexual harassment in their own workplaces, and Weinstein’s implosion will surely prove a deterrent to would-be abusers.
The challenge now is to make unequal pay as socially unacceptable as sexual harassment. Guests at the Golden Globes cheered themselves by speculating about a possible Oprah Winfrey run for the presidency, and having more women in charge of businesses and countries can only help to redress the power imbalance. But with unfairness so deep-seated in the workplace, at home and even in our minds, the gender pay gap is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
King is optimistic that younger people will not fall into the same trap of acceptance. “Millennials are the greatest generation ever on inclusion,” she told CNN in a post-awards interview last week. “And they’re powerful… these women feel very empowered. In the old days everybody felt like they didn’t have a voice, they were negative in their thoughts, but no more.
“Those days are over.”