Popularized by author Mark Twain, who attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the quote "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics" has never been more appropriate than when applied to the issue of the Gender Pay Gap.
The term itself is often misquoted but generally when people quote "the gender pay gap" what they mean is the percentage by which the average hourly rate of pay for women in full time employment is lower than the average hourly rate of pay for men in full time employment.
For Europe generally that figure is 17%. UK statistics show a lower figure of 14.9%, the USA higher at about 22%, although there are lots of arguments about these rates. The goal, in terms of gender equality, is to narrow that gap and to do that we have to reach a point where women earn the same as men.
But this is where it starts to get complicated.
First the term average means by definition that half the population are doing better than that and the other half are worse off. So there are lots of examples where women are learning the same or even better than men – but there are also lots of examples where the position is far worse.
In fact once we start to unravel the statistics we find a number of very disturbing facts.
Some employment sectors like health and financial services are a lot worse than the average – while the public sector is mostly better. In the UK Financial services sector for example, the gender pay gap is a staggering 55%. However the way the gender pay gap is calculated actually makes the problem seem better than it really is.
This statistic tells us that on average women working full time earn just $ 450 for every $ 1000 earned by men. In order to equalize pay we need to increase women's pay. If we increased average pay for women by 100%, another $ 450 in my example, that would be $ 900 – still not equal to men.
If we express the gender pay gap by reference to how much women earn instead of the other way around, the figures become unpalatable. In the financial services industry men in full time employment earn on average 122% more than women in full time employment – more than double. And this gets even worse when we look at part time earnings where the gender pay gap is much higher, in part because 78% of part time workers are woman.
So why, nearly half a century after equal pay legislation, do we still have such an insurmountable problem with gender equality especially when statistics show that there is no real difference between the rates of pay for men and women when doing the same or equivalent jobs. I came across a very male oriented site that might give a clue.
"… the 22-cent" pay gap "is either a result of gender bias nor workplace discrimination. It can be explained entirely by the fact that women as a group tend to make certain very logical and legitimate employment-related choices which, while affording them a number of benefits that they value highly, tend to suppress incomes – Male Matters USA. "
Let's consider this. Over 70% of employees in healthcare are female, yet the highest paid jobs are largely held by men and for many years women were excluded from those higher paid jobs. The jobs traditionally employing women are lower paid than the jobs traditionally employing men. Women seem to be better than men in work involving social and caring skills, where men seem to be better than women in manufacturing and construction work.
However the choice of career is not entirely legitimate, logical or free from bias. Women are socialized into expecting to work in traditionally female work and to expect to take a career break to have children. There is plenty of evidence to show that by the age of two or three children have very clear beliefs regarding gender roles, behavior and expectations.
More importantly most of us have undergone the same gender socialization process as a result of which we tend to be unconsciously biased towards encouraging women away from higher paid jobs. If a man works long hours he is applauded, where a woman will be criticized. If a woman negotiates hard and is money orientated she will be viewed as unfriendly and selfish – where a man is considered dynamic and successful.
It is very difficult for a man to see and understand that unconscious bias and hidden prejudice – I could not see it as a man, but now living as a woman and subjected to that bias it is a different story, especially when I lost the natural privileges granted to men.
Imagine a world where most women did, as most men apparently do, seek work primarily for the purpose of accumulating wealth or refused to work in low paid industries like healthcare and education, or chose not to have children or handed them over to low paid child carers. Is that really a better alternative?
The problem is that many women are good at social skills and enjoy caring Just as many men are good at construction and enjoy making things and without that balance of skills and passions our society would be much poorer. Unfortunately we do not value the work we expect women to do as much as we value the work we expect men to do and until we change our values we will continue to have gender inequality.