Fifty thousand women a year in the UK lose their jobs because of having children, which shows discrimination lives, says one of the architects of revolutionary new pay gap reporting. And biases that men are inherently more competent than women remain, politician Jo Swinson believes.
Swinson, of the centrist Liberal Democrats, says her party was key to a new pay transparency initiative that requires organizations with 250 or more employees to publish figures on the gap between men and women’s pay. Her party was in coalition with the dominant Conservatives at the time – and they claimed the credit, she says. The figures for 2018 showed that 78 percent of responding businesses paid men more, although in 14 percent women were higher paid.
The UK drive towards “naming and shaming” companies with large pay gaps is one of the first in the world. Apart from Iceland (Washington Post), the global frontrunner for gender equality, no other country has taken this leap forward in transparency. Data provided is online via a government “Gender pay gap service”. More than 10,000 organizations offers have complied, and the statistics give a telling insight into workplace equality – and inequality – in the UK.
An amendment to the 2010 Equality Act made it compulsory for big British companies to reveal their gender pay gaps. As of April 2018, they have to do so annually or face open-ended fines. But despite claims the Conservatives are to thank, the pay transparency bill was successfully pushed through parliament by the Lib Dems in 2015 when Swinson was the government equalities minister. The Labour Party’s Harriet Harman, a long-serving British MP, was also a key designer of the bill.
The UK’s newfound transparency about gender pay has received worldwide attention (The New York Times). Debates rage about the newly-revealed data, including discussions on equal opportunities, women’s unpaid labor (The Guardian), and perceived ingrained social behaviors that see women “choose” jobs that receive less financial reward than men. The initiative has even spawned the social media hashtag #PayMeToo, the equal pay equivalent of the #MeToo movement.
But the process has also boosted the “gender pay gap deniers” (Spiked), those who say the perceived pay gap doesn’t exist and factors other than gender dictate differing pay for men and woman. Some claim, for example, that men naturally gravitate towards high-paying professions, whereas others contend that the work many women find satisfying is not richly rewarded by society. [See J. Vaccaro on TALK]
Swinson, a veteran women’s rights advocate and a politician for more than 17 years, has no doubt the gap exists. She told WikiTribune: “There’s no intrinsic reason why men should be paid more. The people who don’t see that are either wary of losing their own privilege, or just not looking objectively at the information and the data that’s there.”
She wrote Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen, a book on ending gender inequality. When Minister for Women and Equalities in 2010, Swinson launched the governmental Body Confidence Campaign. This raised awareness of low self-esteem, and encouraged advertisers to consider how their images objectify women. She spoke with WikiTribune on the phone.
WikiTribune: What was your role in pushing forwards the reporting procedure?
Jo Swinson: It was something which … one of my predecessors in equalities, Lynne Featherstone, had pushed during the passage of the Equality Act in 2010. There was an amendment made when the Labour government finally accepted that having gender pay gap reporting would make sense.
When the coalition government came in, the Conservatives were absolutely determined not to have new regulation, and that it should be done through a voluntary approach. Liberal Democrats pushed back against this, but ultimately the voluntary approach, it was agreed, would be tried. It had literally a handful of companies actually publish the gender pay gaps.
So we kept pushing the Conservatives to say, “We need to introduce this gender pay gap reporting.” And eventually, right before the end of the Parliament, I saw the opportunity for us to win that battle.
We had the Small Business Bill going through Parliament. Running up against the parliamentary clock, I realised that if they were defeated in the House of Lords (upper house) on this issue, then they wouldn’t be able to play the long game. They’d have to cave in. So I saw the opportunity for the Lib Dems to do this, got the Deputy Prime Minister on board, and we basically created a situation where the government would be going to lose a vote in the House of Lords. The only way to avoid that was to agree to bring forward their own government amendment to introduce this gender pay gap reporting.
We, at that stage, put forward an amendment that said that the regulations needed to be brought in within a year. The coalition government obviously came to an end at the general election, and I, and many other Lib Dem MPs lost our seats.
We then can still see the legacy of that final Lib Dem achievement in government, because the Conservative government had to either bring forward gender pay gap reporting or introduce primary legislation to overturn that, which obviously was not going to be a popular thing for them to do. So instead, they tried to make virtue out of necessity and pretend that it was their idea.
WikiTribune: Is the outcome of the regulations what you expected?
Swinson: They probably aren’t exactly how I would have drafted them. They don’t have as much teeth as they should have in terms of fines, nor enough detail in terms of narrative and action plans required.
But nonetheless, they provide for really rich data sets with interesting information where we can compare companies, one against the other. Most importantly, it gives the tools to employees, customers, and the media to ask searching questions of companies that have gender pay gaps, and most importantly, what they’re going to do about closing them.
WikiTribune: What do you make of the results?
Swinson: Many companies have been surprised by what we’ve found. The other thing we’re going to see is an increased literacy about gender inequality in the workplace. Because a defence that many companies have used … is, “Oh you know, there isn’t an equal pay issue in this company, and therefore it’s all okay.”
Well, you’ve still got a huge pay gap. Equal pay and the gender pay gap are not the same thing, and I think a lot of people have conflated the two.
“Women are still shouldering the largest responsibility for care-giving” – Jo Swinson, former women’s minister
Of course, the problem with gender inequality in the workplace certainly includes pay discrimination, which still happens. It includes things like women losing their jobs for being pregnant, where we know from the Equality and Human Rights Commission research that I commissioned and was published in 2016, that 54,000 women a year lose their jobs due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. So we’ve still got an issue with discrimination.
WikiTribune: Fifty four thousand … did you say?
Swinson: That’s a shocking figure in itself. It also is particularly shocking because the previous research about a decade earlier had the figure at about 30,000. So it’s not even as if this is a problem that’s getting better. This is a problem that’s getting worse.
You’ve got that whole issue in the workplace about the penalty for parenting, particularly for motherhood. And then you’ve got all these other issues about the lack of senior roles that are part-time, that are paid a good hourly rate. There are a lot of women who are seeking more flexibility in work because women are still shouldering the largest responsibility for care-giving. Then they get this penalty because they can’t find jobs necessarily at their skill level that have that flexibility. So they end up working at a level far below what they’re able to do.
There’s also the occupational segregation. There’s the lower promotion rates for women. There’s all those biases that assume that a man is competent and that a woman has to continually prove herself. We’ve seen those in research study after study. But these all have an impact. And they’re not all outright discrimination, they’re not all specific equal pay issues, but they are part of the problem of gender inequality in the workplace. As is, of course, the wider cultural issue, including things like harassment, which has been so much in the spotlight recently through the #MeToo Movement.
WikiTribune: Companies won’t necessarily be made to change their pay structures in response to having to report their pay figures. So what happens now?
Swinson: Well, they might or might not. I do think they should have to publish action plans, but that isn’t in the regulations.We’ve got a lot of information here that we can bring pressure to bear on employers, particularly those that are more high-profile names, to lead the way, because they’re going to have to publish another set of numbers next year. And, you know, they’re going to have to publish another set of numbers the year after that.
‘Biases .. assume that a man is competent and that a woman has to continually prove herself’ – Jo Swinson
Every single year they need to publish the gender pay gap. So we’re going to see the trends. The ones that are just giving it a little bit of spin are going to become increasingly exposed and isolated, and I think that this will act as a catalyst.
Encouraging individuals to ask these questions in their own companies, encouraging women’s networks to invite senior leaders in to talk about this, that’s all a vital part of this.
WikiTribune: Did the gender pay transparency policy have anything to do with the “nudge unit” in Downing Street?
[The Behavioural Insights Team, set up by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, looked at how the government could implement small changes inspired by nudge theory to make British citizens make better choices.]
Swinson: Not really. It is, I think, quite a good example of a nudge policy, but it was something that was resisted by the Conservative side of the coalition, and therefore it was resisted by Number 10, I heard quite forcefully throughout the five years of the coalition, until we won the battle. And we won the battle politically at the end.
The Conservatives, did they really want to be having a big fight about this just before a general election? No. It’d be one thing for them to quietly say they didn’t want to do this in government, but then when they’re going to be forced with actually whipping a vote on it just before a general election … All of that, the political circumstances, were what created the pressure to force the Conservatives into accepting this. It wasn’t a bill they wanted to lose. I didn’t want to lose the bill either, but I figured they’d blink first, which they did.
WikiTribune: What do you say to arguments that men and women are suitable for different jobs based on their inherent differences?
Swinson: There’s vanishingly few roles where that’s the case. It cannot in any way explain the gender pay gap on the economy-wide scale.
If you’ve got a women’s refuge centre and you’re looking for a rape support worker, there might be an argument for saying you’d want a woman to do that. If you’ve got a geriatric center for older men and they want the carers to be male carers, then there’s an argument for that, too.
But there’s vanishingly few jobs that can only be done by men or women. Even then if you think about the physical differences between men and women in today’s workplace, they are so much less important compared to what they would have been in previous roles because of automation, for example
There’s no intrinsic reason why men should be paid more. The people who don’t see that are either wary of losing their own privilege, or just not looking objectively at the information and the data that’s there.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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