I live in a household with a serious gender pay gap. Even when I was in a full-time salaried post, my wife (who is a GP) was earning a multiple of my income working part-time. The reason for this is not, of course, any kind of bizarre reverse-gender discrimination, but simply that she is doing a job which had been judged to be of more (economic? social?) value than mine. There have been two different stories about gender pay gap in the last couple of weeks, and though they have become entwined, they relate to quite distinct issues.
The first is the reporting of companies that have a greater than 15% ‘gender pay gap’, measured as the average pay for male employees compared with the average pay for female employees. On many of the media reports, this was presented under the category of clear injustice, but if you listened closely you might have noticed that reports included an explanation of the reason: that in these businesses, the men are often doing jobs which are paid more, rather than being paid more for the jobs that they do. This is especially the case in businesses that include something technical, and airlines are typical in this regard.
Women’s hourly pay rates are 52% lower than men’s at Easyjet. On average, women earn 15% less per hour at Ladbrokes and 33% less at Virgin Money. At Easyjet, for example, 6% of its UK pilots are women – a role which pays £92,400 a year on average – whereas 69% of lower-paid cabin crew are women, with an average annual salary of £24,800.
In terms of equality legislation, there are no issues here, since ‘all three firms say men and women are paid equally when in the same role’ as indeed they must by law. There is an issue, but it is not that women are paid less than men for doing the same work—and I would even venture that the phrase ‘women earn less than men per hour’ is misleading for the ordinary listener or reader. Each of these companies is taking action about the disparity, for example encouraging more female applicants to work as pilots. But it is rarely noted that ‘equality’ in this context can only be achieved on the assumption that men and women have no difference in aptitude or interest in different occupations, or that any differences they have are entirely the product of social conditioning, and not at all related to biological differences. You don’t have to believe that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, to think that this is not a plausible conjecture.
In the context of paying people on a meritocratic basis, the issue just behind the headlines is the question of parental leave for raising children. Whichever parent takes the career break is going to have less experience and a thinner professional CV, and so will have to earn less in a non-discriminatory system. This has been acknowledged in Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries), and the proactive encouragements for fathers to take the career break have been frequently lauded. But what is less often noted is the net outcome, even in a context where men have preferential incentives for parenting:
Swedish mothers still take more time off with children — almost four times as much. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise baby now find themselves coveting more time at home.
If mothers want to spend more time with their children, and that appears to have a biological basis that resists ideological shaping, and under a meritocratic system this will naturally lead to lower pay, how should we respond to the reported ‘gender pay gap’?
The second story was the resignation of Carrie Gracie as the BBC’s China editor in the light of what she called ‘illegal’ ‘discrimination’ given that she is paid only £135,000 per year, much less than some male employees of the BBC, notably John Humphrys who earns in excess of £600,000. This was in the context of the earlier disclosure of BBC reporters’ pay, which showed that the top male presenters earned a good deal more than the top female presenters—though the information was incomplete. Many who work in the media do not work as employees, but as freelance contractors, so that their pay is negotiated on an individual basis.
There are immediately a few things to clarify here. First, Gracie has not (to my knowledge) resigned from her job at the BBC or lost her salary; she has dropped an editorial responsibility, and in fact is in the process of moving over to a Radio 4 role. Secondly, her treatment by the BBC is neither illegal nor discrimination, at least not in the usual meaning of that term. If it was, she could quite easily take them to tribunal and they would not have a leg to stand on. I am not even sure whether her status is as an employee or contractor. In fact, pay differences affect people within and not just across the gender divide. Andrew Graystone, who has long media experience, reported on Twitter:
The day I joined the BBC a similarly qualified person joined to do the same job. When HR offered me my salary I said “thank you very much.” 3 years later I learned that my colleague said “You’re kidding” and was offered a load more. We need more openness about what we are paid.
— Andrew Graystone (@AndrewGraystone) January 8, 2018
Many companies struggle with issues of pay equality for all sorts of legitimate reasons. What do you do if two roles have equal value (in terms of what they contribute to the business) but for one of them you have many applicants but the other is hard to fill? When I worked at Mars in Slough, which had an emphasis on transparency, one solution was to promote commodities traders to high management levels in order to pay them more. That retains equality in pay grades, but of course messes up the organisational structure.
The complexity of issue and the apparent simplicity of Gracie’s claim led Melanie Phillips to challenge the story in the strongest terms, describing it as an example of ‘idiocy and intimidation’:
What crisis of trust? What law-breaking? She may have legitimate cause to complain about any specific undertakings the BBC may have made to her and then broken. But her general point is untenable. It confuses equality with identical outcomes.
There is a specific issue in the media to address, but also a wider issue to consider relating to gender difference. The specific issue is whether two correspondents ever do the same job. Nick Robinson used to be the political editor, and when he left Laura Kuenssberg succeeded him. In theory, she is doing the same job—but I confess to having really liked listening to Nick, but I do not like listening to Laura. I don’t like her style or analysis or way of interviewing, and her voice is not nearly as easy to listen to. The job Nick was doing was not simply being political editor, it was Being Nick Robinson the political editor. Laura Kuenssberg is not doing the same job; she is doing a new job called Being Laura Kuenssberg the political editor. Different correspondents will have difference followings and popularity even if they are in the same place in the organisation—which is why so many work as contractors rather than as employees.
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But there is a wider issue relating to how difference works in large populations. Let’s take something fairly neutral, such as height. In the UK the average height of women is around 5′ 4″, and the average height of men is around 5′ 10″. That six inch difference might sound a lot but it is only 8.5% of the average male height, and in many mixed groups it is not all that noticeable. But move only two inches from the male average, and see what happens. If you had a random group of 1,000 people who were six feet tall, how many of them would be men, and how many women? Statistically, you would have 999 men and 1 woman. Although you are only a small distance from the average male height, you have moved a long way from the average female height, and on the normal distribution (or ‘bell curve’) you are a long way down the tail. (The same would be true in reverse with a group of small people.)
This happens whenever you do two things: aggregate; and specialise. When you group people together, and allow them to specialise along the lines of their interests, small differences in the overall group lead to massive differences in specialisation. Men only need to be a little more interested (for example) in computers and coding to create a situation where 95% of those with a special interest in editing Wikipedia are men. The same is true in sports. Black men only need to be a little (perhaps 1–2%) more athletic in some way to lead to their dominant presence in a sports specialism—and it would be very odd indeed to suppose that the historic gene pools of black and white should be identical.
Imagine an alien visitor chancing upon a basketball arena on a wintry night. It sees a curious sight: most of the faces of the extended tree trunks scampering around the court are black; the crowd, on the other hand, is almost all white. This alien would see much the same racial division at football games, boxing matches, and at track meets and running races around the world. Even in sports in which blacks are not a majority—baseball, soccer, rugby, cricket, even bobsledding in some countries—blacks are represented in greater number than their share of the population.
Aggregation and specialisation are the hallmarks of our interconnected world, and they are especially evident in the media. There is clear evidence that men’s deeper voices are perceived to be more serious and objective and so preferred in news broadcasting, but women’s voices are more soothing and preferred in other contexts. This is not merely a product of cultural conditioning (though that no doubt plays a part); it appears as though men’s and women’s different pitch of voice are actually processed in different parts of our brains as listeners.
In this context, relative small ‘binaries’ in gender difference become very pronounced binaries in specialist groups. That is why it is not uncommon to find many interest groups which are largely single gender on an entirely voluntarist basis.
There is no question that women and men must be paid equally for work of equal value. Neither is there any question that we should challenge lazy and disempowering gender stereotypes. But eliminating stereotypes does not mean eliminating difference; the question then is how we handle this difference both between and within genders.
The aggregation and specialisation noted above is what gets Carrie Gracie her £135,000 pay cheque in the first place. Why on earth should a journalist get paid so much in relation to a nurse or a carer? Are they ‘worth’ this? Only in the kind of competitive, specialised market catering to an aggregated audience. That is not to say that unconscious bias is not present in the system in which she works—but that large parts of what leads to the perceived inequality are the very things that lead to her exorbitant salary in the first place. It is not simply that she should be paid the £600,000 that John Humphrys gets: they should be paid more equally, and a good deal less. And the first will not happen without the second.
Women and men will be paid equally when women-and-men are paid more equally—that is, when there are not the enormous disparities in pay across all sectors. It is indeed questionable whether ‘equality’ is the right terminology at all; we would do much better by talking about pay justice. And in a just world, I am not sure any journalist would be earning £135,000.
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