Women in full-time employment in the UK will effectively be working for free from today until the end of the year. Why? Because the gender pay gap for full-time workers is 14.2 percent, and November 9 marks the day that men have already earned what women will earn over the course of the whole year.
The Fawcett Society, a charity whose roots campaigning for gender equality in the UK go back to 1866, marks what it has dubbed Equal Pay Day each year. The date changes each year, and this year's Equal Pay Day is five days later than that in 2014. This is a small piece of good news — but if progress narrowing the gap continues at the same rate, it will take another 50 years to close it entirely.
The gap had been closing but progress has stalled, a situation the Fawcett Society attributes to the fact that while various measures have been taken here and there, meaningful steps to tackle the fundamental causes of the problem have not.
"The fight for equal pay actually goes back to the 19th century," said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. "Today the battle is very much about equality between men and women generally and realizing rights which have already been won — like the right to equal pay, which we got more than 40 years ago with the Equal Pay Act."
A day where true gender quality was achieved throughout UK society was hard to imagine, she said — but if we took the right steps there was "every possibility of pay equality." Welcome progress had been made, Smethers told VICE News, but not enough to result in a "fundamental shift."
Among top earners, the difference is huge — in the top 2 percent of salary earners, the gender pay gap is 55 percent, while in the top 5 percent it's 46 percent. The top 2 percent of women executives earn more than 40,000 pounds ($60,000) a year less than their male counterparts.
There is no one cause of the UK's gender pay gap, says the Fawcett Society, though all the different factors which contribute to it stem from one overarching fact of life — generalized gender inequality in society.
The type of work associated with and often done by women — working in care and leisure roles, for instance, are typically undervalued and lower paid.
A key example of this is can be seen in the take-up of different types of apprenticeships — vocational qualifications which are publicly funded — by young people leaving school. Men dominate in higher paid fields and vice versa: in 2013, nearly 13,000 men started engineering apprenticeships while only 400 women did, while just over 24,000 women took up children's care apprenticeships compared to just under 1,800 men.
"This speaks volumes, showing how we are saying from the very outset this kind of role is valued at this level and this other role is valued less," said Smethers. "Male and female teenagers are segregated into different career paths. Instead of being encouraged and supported to break out of gendered choices, young people are very much made to feel that it is an unusual thing to do."
Gender roles taught from an early age also leave men more likely to possess the confidence, competitiveness, and ease with risk-taking required to get ahead in certain high-powered industries or high-status sectors, leaving men dominating best-paid positions.
Only five chief executives in the UK's top 100 listed companies are women, and women make up only 9.6 percent of executive directors.
Attitudes and beliefs about what men and women are like, what they are capable of, and the impacts of pregnancy on professional life, also lead to discrimination in recruitment and in the workplace.
Women tend to receive lower pay than men even for similar work, they are less likely to receive bonuses, and when they do it is likely to be smaller than one received by a man, according to research by the Chartered Management Institute.
A report earlier this year by the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated that around 54,000 women lost their job due to pregnancy each year — forced out through dismissal, compulsory redundancy, or poor treatment — almost twice the number calculated in similar research in 2005.
Unequal caring responsibilities also leave women much more commonly subject to the lower status and pay associated with part-time work or with long breaks from employment.
"Women want to come back to work but we are forcing them to choose low-paid, part-time work,"said Smethers. "It doesn't have to be — what women want is flexibility and part-time hours, but we don't make quality part-time work available. So women end up working significantly below their skill level, which is a lose-lose for them and their employers, and society as a whole."
Employee retention was also much higher for companies which supported mothers to stay in the workplace, she pointed out, which had a net financial benefit.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron vowed in July to "end the gender pay gap in a generation," announcing new rules requiring companies with more than 250 employers to publish the difference between the average pay of male and female employees, and launching a consultation to look at what measures should be taken and how.
Later he announced gender pay gap reporting would be extended to include the public sector, and that larger employers would also have to publish information on bonuses given to men and women, and that the government would work with businesses to get rid of all-male boards.
The UK government also introduced shared parental leave in April, allowing two parents to share 50 weeks of leave between them and receive statutory pay. But given men are typically the higher earners in a relationship, realistically many couples will not be able to afford to take up the offer of shared leave — plus there is a negative perception of men taking long periods off for child rearing. Just 2 percent of UK businesses have seen a "significant uptake" of shared leave since it was introduced.
Efforts made by the government were very welcome, said Smethers, but were far from enough to create real progress.
The regulations had to be used to "make companies take meaningful steps to see what their gender inequalities are, publish their figures, and then come up with an action plan to tackle the problem," she said. There must also be "tough penalties for employers who do not comply."
The Fawcett Society is also calling for the introduction of a dedicated period of leave for fathers paid closer to replacement earnings rate, and an extension of free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds through an investment in childcare infrastructure.
Worldwide, the gender pay gap has hardly changed in 20 years. Figures published by the International Labour Organization in March found women across the world earn 77 percent of the amount paid to men, a figure that has improved just three percentage points since 1995.
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc
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