Legislation for equal pay in the UK has been in place for 45 years, but a man and a woman doing the same job at the same skill level are still not paid the same. Grindingly slow progress in introducing measures to close the gap means that while it is at its narrowest since comparative records began in 1997, women are paid almost 10% less than men on average if working full-time, and more than 19% across all full-time and part-time employment.
Equal Pay Day, on 9 November this year, marks the day from which women will effectively work for free until the New Year. There are many reasons why women are not paid as much as men, but much of it comes down to old-fashioned discrimination – which for most women is difficult to challenge because of extortionate employment tribunal fees.
"One of the big issues is equal values," says Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society, the UK charity for gender equality and women's rights. "Women tend to go to professions or jobs that are less valued or not paid as well as they should be. An obvious one is caring professions, such as social care or childcare, where around 80% of the workforce is female and they are paid either at living wage level or below. Male-dominated sectors, such as STEM professions, in comparison, are much better valued and paid – so occupational segregation remains a big problem."
Currently, nearly two-third of women are employed in 12 occupational groups, most of which relate to the traditional family role of women – including catering, caring, teaching and nursing. According to the census, women are more likely to be carers than men, with women filling an estimated 58% of caring positions in the UK.
Another key issue is the impact of caring responsibilities. "These fall unequally on women – and that's when we see the pay gap really open up between men and women," Smethers says.
Women are twice as dependent on social security as men, such as benefits and tax credits, due to greater caring responsibilities, relative economic inequality and on average, lower pay. With this in mind, the pinch of austerity has been felt much harder by women.
"Women who have children tend to do so in their 30s and the impact of that is felt in a woman's late 30s and 40s – and it knocks their careers sideways. So as men's careers take off, a woman's career can stagnate and decline and so the pay gap opens up," says Smethers. "Because of the lack of good quality part-time or flexible work, women often end up working below their skill level or low paid part-time work."
"This is compounded by the cost of childcare, which is very high. So that is another reason why particularly if you have more than one child, it is difficult to find a job which pays sufficiently to cut the cost of childcare."
There is a mix of structural reasons why the gender pay gap exists, including a type of segregation which keeps women stuck below management level in work. "It's a form of segregation but you see in across public and private sectors," Smethers says. Although FTSE 100 companies have now met a voluntary target of 25% women board members, this is far from equal representation. Currently, women make up just eight percent of executive directors in the UK.
Although progress in closing the gap has been glacial, some steps are being taken to improve the situation for women. In July, the prime minister announced his government will press ahead with plans for force firms with more than 250 employees to publish their wage gaps between male and female employees.
Critics argue that there is more to be done, including ensuring companies show how the gap is calculated and commit to actions to address it. Total transparency is necessary, including the publishing of methodologies, so there is not just a naked figure. Penalties for firms that do not comply would help enforce progress.
To properly close the gender gap for good, the Fawcett Society are calling for changes to be made by both employers and the government. By advertising jobs at all levels in organisations as flexible, part-time or a job share – unless there is a strong business case not to – it would open up more positions to women, including senior posts. Unblocking the pipeline to higher positions with support would help women up the ladder, as well as quotas or targets to measure progress.
By building on the extension of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, more women would be able to balance work and care. And implementing "use it or lose it" paternity leave – as used in Finland, Norway and Germany – would help break down the traditional gender roles that prevent equal caring responsibilities.
"A lot of the problems that cause the pay gap resort back to what you are defaulting to," Smethers says. "It's about laziness – about culture and assumptions and unconscious bias – all of those things that mean we are stuck in a groove that we need to change."