Sorry sisters, equal pay isn’t simply a feminist issue

In the news again this week is the recurring topic of the ‘gender pay gap’.  Yet again we read that men earn around 25% more than women, and their bonuses are, on average, double.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know I wear my feminist colours proudly on my sleeve, but here’s the thing.  This isn’t simply a ‘women’s issue’.  It’s more a working parent issue, and I’m a little fed up with all us women being lumped together in the same boat.

Unequal pay is more usually the result of poor management and the failure to reward employee loyalty.

Taking the working parent issue first, women are the ones who have to take time out to physically have children, and even if they don’t take their full year’s maternity leave, they’re more likely to come back wanting part-time, more flexible hours.  In my experience (and this isn’t a sweeping statement covering every working mum), they are also more likely to stick to their contracted hours, which means when there’s a need to work late to meet a deadline, or travel overnight (or abroad), they’re nowhere to be seen.  Similarly, they are more likely to take additional days off (with no prior warning) when there’s a problem with childcare.

This is not a criticism. It’s perfectly correct to put your child’s needs first, but the key issue is how this impacts on the team and/or their work performance.

So even if, on paper at least, they have the same Job Description as others, they tend not to work at the same level.  And as anyone who’s ever sat through a performance review knows, you’re rewarded for ‘exceeding expectation’ not ‘meeting expectation’.

Of course there’s a whole other argument here about childcare provision, but that’s not for today.  My question is, if we took out the ‘returning mums’ when comparing pay levels, would we see a more equal picture?  And is it fair on those colleagues who haven’t had a baby break that their pay should be the same as those who have?

I have managed dozens of teams and reviewing their salaries is often one of the first things I do when I take on a new role.  If I spot a glaring discrepancy, I want to know why.

I almost always find inequalities, but can honestly say I have never seen one based on simple sex discrimination.  Usually, it’s the result of ‘market forces’ – the cost of recruiting one person from a particular industry at a particular time, or their level of previous experience.  I know that I have earned far more than male colleagues doing a similar role on several occasions.  I’m not convinced this is a simple gender issue.

Pay inequality most often discriminates against long serving employees, especially if their job has grown to take on more responsibilities over the years with only inflationary annual pay rises.  I realised, five years into my first job, that the only way I would significantly hike my salary would be to move on.  I had a memorable conversation with my Media Director boss who said, “But Sam, your salary has increased by 70% since you joined” (on a lowly graduate trainee salary, I might add), to which I replied “Yes, but as you’d say yourself, David, 70% of bugger all is still bugger all”.

What the recent articles have picked up on is the lack of transparency and accountability.  MPs are suggesting solutions for this and business needs to find a fairer and more and equitable way to manage it – one that doesn’t allow them to wriggle around it by adding unfair bonuses.

It shouldn’t mean copying the public sector, either, which has tied itself in knots with a comprehensive (and limiting) pay grade scale that often makes it impossible to attract talent from the private sector.  There must be a happy medium.  (I’ve managed teams, and been responsible for recruitment and team performance, in both).

A lack of transparency equals a lack of fairness.  You can’t protest if you don’t know and women do tend to be more trusting.  So whilst there’s lots of good advice about how to ask for a pay rise, it puts the onus on the employee, not the employer.  How do I know I’m earning less than Steve (or Stephanie) unless I’m given a reason to suspect?

The situation is not helped by idiots like that UKIP Treasurer saying women are no good at games like chess and bridge and therefore have no place in the competitive upper echelons of business.  Aside from the fact that these games are more about strategy than competition – and that skill does not have a male/female divide – his attitude that it’s all a macho competition is fundamentally flawed.

What is really needed in the boardroom, and across business as a whole, is an ‘empathy culture’ as perfectly argued in Belinda Parmar’s recent piece.

(Let’s just remind ourselves of the poor, 21 year old Merrill Lynch intern who recently died working excessive hours…  The ‘presenteeism’ and long hours macho, competitive culture can be fatal).  Endless studies have shown that productivity declines in direct proportion to the number of hours worked in a day.

Managers who think they’re doing a good job by recruiting and keeping people on the lowest rate possible – as if it’s their own money they’re saving – are misguided. Of course controlling budgets is a key management responsibility, but this should never be at the expense of the law or team harmony.   If the salary budget is inadequate, it is your responsibility to argue the case with HR and senior management.  The productivity and loyalty of a ‘cared for’ employee is far more valuable than the few grand a year you’ll save on screwing down salaries. (I’m talking about corporates here, the big firms who’ll happily spend that much money on a one-day management conference).

It shouldn’t be down to employees to fight for fair pay, it has to be the responsibility of good managers.  There is no excuse.  It’s illegal to pay people differently when they do the same job, regardless of gender, colour or religion.

Look after your staff, and trust me, they’ll pay it back in droves.

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2 Comments

  1. Val Vakar September 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    You’ve found a way to eloquently express what many have no doubt suspected for a long time – it’s more complicated than just a plain old gender divide. What continues to surprise me is that there are still no relevant educational resources available to the general public, so the regular Joes (or Janes for that matter) simply don’t have a solid platform to think about their career and income goals.

    I can’t help but digress to the bigger issue of how our peers in the workforce negotiate their income, or rather fail to do so. I’ve worked with talented people who simply wouldn’t budge from their current positions even though it’s clear how underpaid they are. There’s always an excuse – the economy is “bad,” they’re not experienced enough, we’re all just “lucky to have a job.”
    It would be really nice to live in a society where managers are as competent and socially conscious as you stated. I would like it just as much if everyone in the workforce were empowered to think about their place on the market and not depend on any particular management structure. I can’t imagine achieving that without proper education, which I find to be very much lacking among the American middle class. It’s strange that we live in a free market society, yet the subject rarely comes up in elementary and middle schools.

    • Sam Bridger September 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Val, you’re absolutely right. I think it’s too easy to brush it aside as a ‘women’s issue’, and that means the real root cause (bad management) is never tackled. It’s definitely high time ‘women’s issues’ were treated separately to ‘parent issues’…

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