Government Equalities Office: Gender pay gap starts from "depressingly” young age

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​With gender pay gap reporting now on most organisations’ radars employers must do more to understand the causes behind their gap

Women are affected by the gender pay gap from the moment they start their careers, said Gillian Unsworth, head of gender pay gap reporting at the Government Equalities Office (GEO).

Speaking at the Whitehall & Industry Group 'Diversity & Inclusion Conference 2019: a cross-sector perspective', Unsworth said the gap appears from a "depressingly” young age.

“Depressingly, it starts really young. Immediately after university we start to manage our expectations and we are less likely to earn the same as men, and then the gap starts to dramatically widen around our early- to mid-thirties,” she said.

Many female workers are then further affected when they have children and take on increased caring responsibilities, Unsworth continued.

“Women who have children, regardless of age and experience, will earn less than those who don’t have children. Interestingly this isn't the same for men, who earn more than their colleagues who don’t have children,” she said.

“This progresses throughout a woman’s career, and then when they get to their forties and fifties they take on caring for elderly parents too.

"It also means – as has been brought to attention by the WASPI women – that women end up with a smaller pension pot at the end of their careers too. So we can see that the pay gap has a massive impact on their quality of life.”

Unsworth pointed to several other cultural factors that can hold women back from progressing at work.

“Part of the problem is around occupational segregation. Women are more likely to be in junior roles as their careers stagnate because of different responsibilities, but there is also industrial segregation,” she said.

“We still have outdated views on who should be an accountant or a lawyer. In the construction sector it’s really difficult for people who see it as being made up of big burly men in high-vis jackets to feel attracted [to working there].”

The GEO is working to combat outdated views that hinder women’s career progression, she said: “I quote directly from the Ryanair reaction [to their gender pay gap] – ‘women just like serving drinks and men just like flying planes’.

"We want to show that actually that isn’t true. Even in some predominantly female companies there’s still an all-male board, and that’s where all the bonuses are.”

Unsworth gave the example of Phase Eight, a women’s clothing retailer with a predominantly female workforce, which published one of the worst gender gaps in 2018. Its hourly wage for women was 65% lower than for men.

When it comes to offering solutions Unsworth warned that implementing unconscious bias training is not always helpful on its own.

“Mandatory unconscious bias training can actually be bad for closing the gender pay gap. A lot of people can go to a session and think that they’ve sorted it and don’t need to worry about it anymore. Or, even worse, they think it’s not their fault,” she said.

Instead employers should focus on being as transparent as possible about pay and talk to employees to better understand the issues at hand: “What can help is transparency. The more info you can put into job adverts, for instance, will really help.

"We want employers to drill down into the numbers and look at the data, but also talk to their networks, talk to their people, listen to their lived experiences. Quite often there will be people who are very well-intentioned who just don’t understand the barriers women face.”

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