Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

It will take more than a top-down approach to close the gender pay gap

Societal buy-in as well as government and private sector initiatives will have a collective impact on representation in top institutions

Muriel Penicaud, France's labour minister, has begun implementing new measures to close the gender pay gap and tackle discrimination. Jason Alden / Bloomberg
Muriel Penicaud, France's labour minister, has begun implementing new measures to close the gender pay gap and tackle discrimination. Jason Alden / Bloomberg

"Frankly, I am just impatient now. We can’t keep waiting." Those were the words of the chief executive of a multinational company attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos last week. Her impatience was with the time it is estimated to take to close the gender pay gap. According to the WEF, it will take another 108 years before women are paid an equal salary as men for doing the same job. At a closed-door session attended by a number of heads of state, ministers and leading business figures, the chief executive urged swift and decisive action to close the gender gap. That action could take the form of fining companies found to be discriminating when it comes to pay, to making radical changes to education systems that limit the choice of girls.

Even though many countries have outlawed gender discrimination, women around the world continue to face unfair bias. Measuring the bias is critical to fighting it. The pay gap is the most tangible way to measure levels of discrimination women face in the workforce and in society more generally. While tackling pay will not in itself solve all the other challenges that face women across the world, it is an important indicator of how societies and countries tackle gender inequality.

The Davos meeting might at first appear to be a surprising arena to tackle gender discrimination. Only 22 per cent – fewer than one in four – of this year’s participants were women. That is up from 15 per cent five years ago. However, the under-representation of women is less a fault of the forum and more a reflection of the world’s elite political and business institutions. A couple of years ago, the WEF mandated that companies coming to attend the meeting with five participants had to ensure that one of them was a woman. Quotas are a divisive issue, as most women prefer to be recognised by merit rather than have the shadow of an enforced quota raise doubts about their abilities. Carolyn Tastad, group president for North America at Procter and Gamble, warned at one of the sessions: "We don’t want to fake promotions to fill the gap." However, the quota did ensure female attendance at the forum nudged its way past a 20 per cent representation.

In an effort to come up with solutions to tackle this gender bias, the WEF has launched a number of initiatives with governments and the private sector. National taskforces have been set up with several countries, including Costa Rica, France and Argentina. Each country will have its own path and legislation to follow, but will have tangible, top-down measures to accelerate the push against gender discrimination.

On March 1, new French regulations will come into play that will force the private sector to act. The French Minister of Labour, Muriel Penicaud, was in Davos to speak about the overall plan of action that France has adopted to combat sexual violence and discrimination and to end the gender pay gap. Even though French law has stipulated "equal pay for equal work" for the past 46 years, it has yet to be implemented. According to the French government, there is a 9 per cent pay gap across all jobs in France, which widens to 25 per cent at retirement age. Measuring pay gaps is a vital step towards bridging them, so Paris has mandated that all companies have to assess their gender balance according to five indicators and publish their results on their websites. Each company will then have three years to close their gender gap or face a fine up to 1 per cent of the total cost of salaries.

The French approach is decisive and in line with the fear that without a real push, it will take another century to move forward across the world.

Of course, the private sector is not solely to blame here. In too many countries, the big hindrance is societal, both in allowing women to enter the workforce and encouraging men to support them. In some countries, new mothers and fathers are entitled to equal amounts of paid leave. However, societal pressure has meant that the majority of men do not take parental leave of more than a few days. So a top-down approach alone will not suffice. Getting societal buy-in will take longer but will have a more lasting effect.

Any measures to promote gender equality rest on men being brought in as an equal part of the process. With the greatest level of disparity seen in the spheres of political participation and empowerment (more than 77 per cent) compared to economic participation (just under 42 per cent), women are not yet in a position to make changes at a political level. Convincing both men and women that they have to be invested in these issues politically and economically will continue to be a challenge.

Updated: January 27, 2019 09:02 PM