The gender pay gap can't be closed while the Tories have their heads in the sand

David Cameron displayed a higher than usual level of complacency the other week, writing an article in the Times in which he celebrated “a recent slew of good news” for gender equality. Out in the real world, things are quite a bit less rosy.

Although it’s now 45 years since Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act established in law the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value”, progress towards genuine equality has slowed in recent years. In fact, across the workforce women today earn just 81p for every pound a man earns.

Part of the reason is systemic – many of the lowest-paid professions, including catering, cleaning and personal care, remain dominated by women, while at the other end of the scale a disproportionate number of highly paid positions in fields like science and engineering are occupied by men.

Worrying as this is, there’s more to the story. The pay gap persists even among even among equally qualified men and women doing similar jobs within the same field.

Research carried out by the salary benchmarking site Emolument earlier this year showed that, within five years of graduating, women with MBA degrees earned average salaries 13% lower than their male peers. And it’s likely that the full extent of the gap is much greater, because the same figures showed that the average bonus paid to male MBA graduates – £50,000 – is almost double the typical woman’s bonus of £27,000.

Transparency is the key issue here. The Tories may have reluctantly gone along with Labour’s efforts in the last Parliament to require companies with more than 250 employees to publish data on their employees’ pay, but women still won’t know why the men sitting at the desks next to them are being paid more, or why.

Raw data on salaries won’t be enough on its own. We should also require comprehensive skills audits, which would mean that differences between what a company pays its male and female employees, whether it’s in salaries or bonuses, would have to be objectively justified by reference to the requirements of each particular job.

There is ample precedent in recent legislation for taking a more proactive approach to tackling persistent problems. Passed in 1998, the Human Rights Act broke new ground in establishing a positive duty on the state to actively secure people’s basic rights. More recently the Bribery Act, passed in 2010, placed the onus on large companies and other organisations to show that they have put proactive measures into place to prevent corrupt practices from occurring. There’s no reason we should take gender discrimination any less seriously, and taking a similarly proactive approach to tackling the pay gap would be a good place to start.

There’s plenty more our new Act could do, as I’ve written elsewhere. But meaningful change will not be achieved for as long as the Tories continue to bury their heads in the sand. While it may have escaped the Prime Minister’s attention, women from care homes to boardrooms know that good news on gender equality is in badly short supply. It’s time for us to demand the change we need.    

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