Why the gender pay gap is an enduring challenge for many organisations

In April of 2018, large companies with over 250 employees were obliged to report their gender pay gap for the first time. Headlines that week were dominated by some of the surprise and shock of the extent to which women were paid less in majority of the companies reported, while for many women it just confirmed our hidden beliefs. There was a slight optimism, however, that there can only be progress. However, many companies who are reporting their new pay gap for this year show that rather than progress, many have increased their gaps. Why is this the case?

Obviously we cannot know without examining in greater detail what happened in these companies – for example, the car mechanics chain Kwik Fit went from women having higher pay to a positive pay gap favouring men by 14% explains this change is due to some of the senior women moving leaving their positions. We could expect this type of patterns to have occurred more often in companies where gender pay gaps were greater – as shown in the case with BBC China editor Carrie Gracie quitting due to the equal pay row. If your company was reported to be one of the worst offenders in paying women less than men, this could’ve prompted many talented women to leave that company for one that fared better. Obviously this could have further increased the gender pay gap in these companies.

On the other hand, the stalling of the gender pay gap and its increase may be largely due to companies not haven taken enough action in truly addressing some of the more fundamental issues in our workplaces. A simple introduction of “family-friendly” arrangements such as flexible working in itself cannot be a solution if we don’t tackle issues such as gender role attitudes, or long working hours cultures.

The introduction of flexible working – especially giving women more control over when and where they work – is great for gender equality in that it can allow mothers to stay in employment and not move into part-time posts – which unfortunately in the UK is still a move towards lower skilled, lower paid jobs with lack of career opportunities and the over representation of women in part-time jobs is a major reason why there is a gender pay gap in the first place. However, flexible working can also lead to negative career outcomes, with mothers being affected disproportionately. This has a lot to do with how we think about mothers’ and fathers’ productivity and commitment.

As fathers are still considered breadwinners of families, and mother’s priority to be at home, when mothers work from home, they are expected to do childcare and household tasks, while when men do it their working time is not only protected, but people also expect them to be able to be productive. Changes in gender role attitudes are crucial if we are to make things work.

Another fundamental change needed is our work culture, which idolises long working hours. According to the TUC one in eight workers work more than 48 hours a week, and according to Eurostat, the UK has the longest full-time average working week of all European countries. Also in the most recent Work Employment Relations Survey, a representative survey across all British establishments conducted by the Government department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategies, half of managers and professionals – read, the best paid occupations – agreed to the statement that “People in this workplace who want to progress usually have to put in long hours”.

Long hours work is synonymous for commitment, and determines whether or not you get the pay raise or promotion.  Given the unequal division of childcare/domestic work in the UK, prevalent gender norms that assume mothers are mainly responsible for care of children, and the lack of affordable good quality childcare, many women are unable to compete in such environments especially after childbirth. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the companies with the largest gender pay gap are from sectors that are infamous for long hours culture. Larger scale studies in the US confirm this, showing that long hours work culture explain why gender pay gaps are larger in certain occupations.

So what do we need to truly tackle gender pay gaps? Firstly, we need policies that will change gender role attitudes in relations to whose role it is to care. What we also know from the European experience is that getting fathers involved in the early stages is the most important factor determining father’s involvement in childcare in the later stages of a child’s life.

Well-paid ear-marked paternity leave in the first year of a child’s life – as done in countries such as Norway, Sweden, but also Germany is one of the surest bet in ensuring that fathers are involved. This will not only relieve mothers of these responsibilities, but also remove some of the stigma towards mother’s productivity, and the stigma attached towards flexible working. Second, we need to seriously think about the reduction of hours for all workers, not just for mothers. There are many companies now trialling the four-day work weeks.

This is due to the growing evidence that such reduction in hours enhance performance outcomes for companies, increase work-life balance, well-being, and job satisfaction for workers, whilst reducing burn out, and turnover of staff. We could expect that it could also potentially work wonders in enabling both men and women an equal footing in the labour market.

These are major changes and difficult for one single company to implement. However, simple solutions won’t work and we need to act collectively and think of the fundamental changes that are needed in our workplaces if we are to take this persistent gender pay gap issue seriously. The good news is, evidence shows that the potential benefits will be worth it.


Dr Heejung Chung is a Reader at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent and an expert on gender issues in the workplace.