Is The Gender Pay Gap A Myth?

Women's History Month is the perfect time to ask some searching questions about the gender pay gap, including whether it exists at all.

Penny Horwood
clock • 6 min read
Is The Gender Pay Gap A Myth?

This years' International Women's Day message was #inspireinclusion. Many women working in technology, scrolling past the never-ending stream of purple prose, hearts and cupcakes will wonder if a different message would be more useful, namely #paymemore

Tech has a reported gender pay gap of 16%. But does it really? It's been illegal to pay women less than men for the same work since 1970 and the gender pay gap is driven, at least in part, by women making different choices to men such as working part-time or doing different types of work that pay less.

The fact that men happen to dominate the highest paying industries, including technology, and happen to be more likely to be promoted to leadership does drive the gender pay gap but has historical causes. As more women enter these industries, the gap will close. Relax feminists! And maybe have a cupcake. 

This analysis is flawed. For one thing women aren't going into technology in anywhere the necessarily numbers. The problem may have its roots in the past but is likely to persist very far into the future. About 300 years according to a recent study by the BCS. 

However, by aggregating data from different industries and by failing to distinguish between full-time, part-time, or freelance or more casual work, gender pay gap campaigners leave themselves open to a charge of misrepresentation. The gender pay gap can then be framed as an inevitable consequence of the choices made by women and it stops us all asking why women make those choices, or whether they are choices at all.

How To Prove Something That You Can't See

A recent study underlines one of the key difficulties of establishing whether the gender pay gap really is a myth - attitudes to salary transparency makes it almost impossible to prove. The study, by MyBioSource, Inc surveyed 600 women in STEM roles around the world. 

When asked how their salaries compared to male peers, 1 woman in 10 reported that she knew she was being paid less. 34% said they suspected the same, and of course, it's very difficult to know for sure because salaries aren't water cooler chat. 

There are exceptions but on the whole people tend not to be comfortable revealing to others in their workplace what they get paid - especially if they suspect they might be doing better than their colleagues. Those who are paid less would benefit from greater transparency but those at the higher end of the scale have no incentive to change the system. 

It would help if organizations like the ONS collected more data but in the UK, only companies with more than 250 employees have to report gender pay gap data and there are fewer of those than most people realize. Some companies report voluntarily but the fact that they're volunteering the data probably means they don't have an issue so the data is biased. 

The lack of data and lack of transparency means that women who suspect they're being underpaid find it very difficult to prove. Even if the woman moves company to secure a pay rise, she'll be negotiating from a lower starting point.  

Lean In 

Of course, another way of getting a pay rise is to secure a promotion, and if more women did this, the gender pay gap would be reduced. The whole question of promotion is another area where some transparency really would be useful. Back to the study. 

45% of the women surveyed had never been promoted and 19% had been passed over for promotion in the last 2 years. Of women passed over for a promotion, 69% said a male coworker got the job instead. 

The reasons that women have a harder time than males colleagues securing promotion are well aired. McKinsey first published research about the "broken rung" on the promotional ladder eight years ago. It matters because first promotions are key to reducing the gender pay gap and increasing the proportion of women in technology more generally.  

The complex, subtle reasons that women are overlooked for promotions are legion. Women are more likely to have their judgement questioned than men and they're more likely to be talked over or have others pass off their ideas as their own. Many would counter that women should stop passively accepting the victim role and challenge male colleagues when this happens (lean in ladies!) but often that simply results in being labelled aggressive or prone to overreacting. So, do lean in, but nicely. 

Women are also sometimes perceived as less committed if they have family responsibilities (in contrast with men who are perceived as more committed because they have a family to provide for now.) 

Interestingly, 55% of women in the survey also reported the phenomenon of 'quiet promotion.' This involves being ‘rewarded' with more responsibilities but without the pay rise and enhanced status that traditionally accompanies them. 

More than one woman has told Computing over the years that when they did come forward and ask for more money and a promotion after having exceeded performance metrics, they were advised to do that job for six months and see how they got on. Needless to say, fewer men are asked to prove their competency for a given role up-front, or for free. 

Perhaps most importantly women often fail to cultivate the kind of informal sponsorship links that are so important because they often don't have the time outside of the working day to help nurture them - quite possibly because they're doing someone else's job in addition to their own if the finding above is anything to go by. 

Diversity Pays

The gender pay gap is a far more complex phenomenon than many of the people who campaign to reduce it acknowledge. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just means that a lot of the time, we're not looking at the complex historical and societal causes of it - or challenging them. 

If we did, we might see that initiatives to boost inclusion and transparency might well encourage more women to stay in tech and pursue leadership opportunities. But these initiatives have to be introduced carefully, and they have to be sold. Executive boards should be the change they claim to want to see, and maybe be curious about why female new hires often arrive with a lower salary expectation than men. 

It is more difficult than tweeting out a cutesy message with your female staff making a heart shape with their hands but given that diverse companies tend to be more profitable, it will almost certainly make everyone more money in the long run. 

This article originally appeared on our sister site Computing. 


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