Women still only earn 80p for every pound a man is paid

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Wednesday (4 November) is Equal Pay Day. [MichaelPanse/Flickr]

Wednesday (4 November) marks a sad day for working women across the United Kingdom, writes Julie Girling.

Julie Girling is a British Conservative MEP.

Because of the 22% gap in pay between men and women, that day is when women effectively stop earning a salary and work free for the rest of the year. In the UK, it is referred to as Equal Pay Day. Perhaps it would be better called Not-So Equal Pay Day. The figures on the pay gap vary slightly but the story is always the same. For every £1 earned by a man a women takes home around 80p for doing the same job. It has been illegal in the UK since 1970 to pay men and women differently because of their gender, yet nearly half a century on men are still dominating the payroll.

Last week, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, boldly declared that he was committed to eradicating the gender pay gap in a generation. Was that an ambitious goal? Is it an achievable goal? I certainly believe it’s about time we addressed the issue once and for all.

I started work in the 1970s when women earned, on average, 45 percent less than their male counterparts. Today that figure is considerably lower but it is still a national disgrace. It shouldn’t be ambitious or bold or ground-breaking to make sure that women are paid fairly for the work they do. Women contribute hugely to Britain’s vibrant economy; if companies and public sector organisations want to perform and deliver results they need to be able to recruit a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population.

EU figures show that the average gender pay gap across Europe is 16 percent; shamefully, Britain can’t boast that she is a European leader in reducing the gap. But the figures are misleading and the situation is not as clear cut as some might suggest.

The law states that employers must pay men and women who are doing identical jobs equally, yet the UK’s office of national statistics analyses the gender pay gap through hours worked and hours paid. They do not take into account differences in rates of pay for jobs which are comparable in their nature. A number of local councils, public bodies and private organisations across the UK have carried out job evaluation schemes where they have tried to match the jobs that women tend to do, such as care-work, cleaning and cooking, with the work that men tend to do, such as refuse collection, street sweeping and gardening.

This job comparison exercise poses the biggest challenge to ensuring pay parity. Employers can pay a different wage based on what are referred to as “material factors” and this might be experience of doing the job, qualifications, geographical differences, unsocial hours, rotating shifts and night working.

The pay gap differs between age groups and sectors. Statistics show that the gender pay gap for women aged between 26 years and 35 years is at six percent. It is after the age of 39 that the gap widens significantly. Women who “smash the glass ceiling” may earn the coveted and powerful title of chief executive, chief financial officer or chief operating officer, but they don’t necessarily see equivalent financial rewards. Research carried out by the UK’s management body found that while men in senior managerial roles earned an average of £138,699 per year, their female equivalents took home an average of £123,756 per year. The average male bonus was almost twice as high at £4,898 compared with £2,531 for women. For women aged between 40 and 60 years, the pay gap is 35 percent, and that gap increases to 38% for women in their 60s.

Under plans announced by Cameron companies with more than 250 employees will have to publish what they pay their female and male employees including their bonuses. Transparency can be a powerful tool in improving behaviour and bringing about change. I applaud Cameron for his decisive action and while I don’t believe that the European Union should be forcing mandatory pay audits on companies, I do think that the British Prime Minister has every right to demand that companies in the UK are honest about what they pay their female and male workforce.

As a woman who has been in the workplace for over 40 years I can see that legislation alone is not the key to ending the gender pay gap, but rather political and social will. Women are fed up with the status quo. We want to be paid properly, fairly and equally to our male counterparts. Legislation has been in place for decades but the current remedy of taking a company to an employment tribunal is costly, complex and quite honestly, a daunting prospect.

Every year the European Parliament adopts resolutions and non-legislative reports in the hope of eliciting a legal proposal from the European Commission. I am always cautious about the EU interfering in social policy and employment matters. The British Prime Minister has shown that when a government puts its mind to it, it can tackle the issues of opportunity and equality.

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