Equal Pay Day: how far have we come in the fight for equality?


The UK’s leading charity campaigning to close the gender pay gap, The Fawcett Society, designated 22nd November this year’s Equal Pay Day. In other words, from this date, based on average earnings, women start working for free until the end of the year. The charity claims that the mean gender pay gap is currently 10.7% for full-time workers.

The Fawcett Society makes this calculation every year in order to highlight the continued prevalence of gender pay inequality. This year, it was 48 hours later than in 2022, so the situation has improved slightly, but not as much as the charity had hoped for.

According to the Fawcett Society, at the current rate of change, the gender pay gap will not close until 2051. If more action is not taken to close this gap quicker, women aged 40 and older will not see the gender pay gap close before they reach state pension age.

The mean hourly pay gap at Durham University is 21.1%

In order to fully understand the severity of this issue, it can help to relate it to our own university. In the Office for National Statistics’ 2023 report on the gender pay gap, it was revealed that female higher education teaching professionals earn 7.4% less than their male counterparts. Furthermore, in an article published in Palatinate in June 2023, it was revealed that the mean hourly pay gap at Durham University is 21.1%, three times the national average. Women at the University therefore earn on average 76p for every £1 earned by men.

In a statement about the importance of Equal Pay Day, Harriet Harman, Chair of the Fawcett Society, said that “We need urgent action to ensure women are allowed to work to their full level of skills and experience. Making flexibility the norm will make it easier for women to get the flexibility they need, and also normalise men taking on their fair share of caring responsibilities.”

Problems like these which are so deeply rooted into our social fabric are difficult to solve

So why does this pay gap exist? One reason is that there are currently more men in senior roles than women. This is largely due to the fact that senior jobs tend to require longer hours and constant availability, so cannot be done flexibly or part-time. Women often require this flexibility more than men, due to the additional pressures of childbirth and childcare put on many women. One way this could be helped is by offering equal maternity and paternity leave, so that both parts of a heterosexual couple share equal responsibility for childcare. Statistics published by the Fawcett Society show that 40% of women who aren’t currently working say that access to flexible work would mean they could take on more paid work, and 77% of women would be more likely to apply for a job that advertises flexible working options.

Therefore, some argue senior roles should be redesigned to work for everyone and to represent the UK workforce as it is today. Our current workforce contains people of various genders who all need or want to work, but who do not all have the same access to higher-paid senior roles. In order to accommodate everyone and to benefit from the skills that they can bring to the workplace, these roles could be redesigned to fit the workforce we have now. In practice this could mean removing expectations for workers in senior roles to always be available on their days off, or to allow people more opportunities to work from home if they need to for personal reasons.

It is an issue which affects so much of society and which every citizen should feel passionate about solving

Problems like these which are so deeply rooted into our social fabric are difficult to solve. In 2017 the UK government offered their support, by outlining 6 steps to help companies close the gender pay gap:

  1. Include multiple women in shortlists for recruitment and promotions.
  2. Use skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment.
  3. Use structured interviews for recruitment and promotions.
  4. Encourage salary negotiation by showing salary ranges.
  5. Introduce transparency to promotion, pay and reward processes.

Since then, however, the government’s messaging has not changed and developed to help close the gap more quickly. These outlines are useful tools for businesses to follow, but unless the issue is spoken about more by our government, and unless harsher penalties are imposed on those who do not strive to close the gap in their own businesses, the situation will not change.

In this year’s Autumn Statement, economic growth was deeply focused on, but there was still no mention from the government about the gender pay gap. In her speech to Parliament on Equal Pay Day, which coincided with the Autumn Statement, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, stated that she recognised that “the living standards of working women have also been held back by a gender pay gap that I am determined to close.” Such statements are rarely made in Parliament, so this does offer a glimmer of hope to the situation and suggests that should the Labour Party get into government in the next election, more may be done to solve this problem.

The gender pay issue is so much more than a social issue. It is intrinsically political, and it is vital that the government steps up to fight for gender equality in the workplace. Without drastic legislation change to ensure that people of all genders have access to the same jobs and the same pay, the situation will never improve. It is an issue which affects so much of society and which every citizen should feel passionate about solving.

Image: Luke Harold via Wikimedia Commons

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