It’s time to challenge the false narrative of the “gender pay gap”

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Who needs fake news when seemingly the entire force of the mainstream media is dedicated to peddling the same false narrative, that men and women in the UK are paid unequally for the same work?

Is it laziness? Desire to use a catchy, easily-recognisable headline phrase rather than the multiple phrases that would be necessary to actually capture the issue?

Yes – on average, over their lifetimes, women earn less than men. And yes, we absolutely should look into every one of the reasons why that happens, and seek to address them. But using the term “gender pay gap” implies that the reason women earn less than men is simply because they are women – which is absolutely not correct.

The Guardian, today, even went so far as to convert the reported gender pay gap at various different companies into “the number of days women effectively work for free”, and published monthly calendars showing the dates that various companies “stop paying women”, allowing users to input the name of any company and immediately see on what date that company “stops paying women”. It really is a very impressive tool. Just a shame it’s promoting an outright lie, with the small fact that men and women are not paid differently for doing the same job, buried in the middle of the article, along with the equally vital information that the figures provided do not compare levels of pay for equal work or roles.

In reality, the “gender pay gap” is caused by various factors – societal (different expectations of women and men with regards child care and care of elderly relatives), behavioural (differences in personality, career choice and attitudes to work-life balance) and biological (pregnancy and childbirth being a major cause of women leaving work or taking time out).

It would be impossible to address all of the above factors in any meaningful way within the context of a single blog post, so I don’t intend to try. But I would like to look at one of the behavioural factors that I believe contributes to differing levels of pay between men and women – the “gender confidence gap”.

Why is it that women are – in general – less willing than men to negotiate higher salaries? Why don’t women advocate as forcefully for their ideas, or for promotion, as men?

I speak from experience here. Fairly early on in my career, I remember being in a job I was hating, working in a large investment bank, in which I not only found I didn’t have enough work to do so was constantly watching the clock, but also had a severe clash of personalities with my immediate supervisor. When my initial 3 month contract came up for renewal and the bank made it clear they wished to renew for a further 3 months, I rang up my agency and confided to them that I was miserable, told them I really didn’t wish to renew the contract, and begged them to find me something else.

To my utter mortification, my senior manager called me in the next morning and asked me if anything was bothering me. He hinted that he was aware that I wasn’t getting on with my supervisor, and asked whether I was finding the role sufficiently challenging. It was clear that the agent had broken my confidence and had told the manager of our conversation.

But what followed was one of the best lessons I ever learned, which served me very well from that moment on. Not only did my manager make it clear to me that he valued my work and was so keen for me to stay that he would be willing to re-jig the team so that I didn’t have to continue working under the supervisor I so hated – but he told me to ask the head of our department for a pay rise.  He told me I was one of the best and brightest people he’d worked with and that I was seriously underselling myself at my existing hourly rate.

It had never occurred to me that my manager would try so hard to work around the issues that were causing me to be so miserable. I had convinced myself that as a temp, and a junior member of the team, it was up to me to try to get on with the supervisor. It had certainly never occurred to me to ask for a pay rise.

I didn’t need telling twice. I asked for – and got – the pay rise. Three months later – again prompted by my manager – I asked for another. And every time thereafter that my contract came up for renewal – after the first six months it changed to six-monthly intervals – I asked for yet another pay rise. By the end of two years, I had almost doubled the rate I had started on.

Eventually, I did move on to another role at another bank. And this time I made sure that I properly researched rates of pay for similar roles, and that the rate I asked for was at the upper end of the rates advertised. The agent tried to talk me into putting myself forward at a lower rate to improve my chances of getting an interview, but I was adamant – I knew I was good at my job, and was determined not to sell myself at anything less than the top rate available.   I got the interview, and I got the job – at the rate I’d asked for.

I have spent just over 20 years contracting in the investment banking industry, and over that time I have had to negotiate my rate on numerous occasions – whether negotiating a starting rate, or an increase on renewal.   On every occasion, I have researched what similar roles are paying elsewhere, and have argued for the rate I required based on that knowledge and on as confident a sales pitch as I’ve been able to muster, as to my own talents and experience.

There have also been times where I have accepted a new role at a lower rate than I can see is being paid elsewhere. I have done this, generally, for one of two reasons – desperation for a job after a period out of work, or the knowledge that I am less experienced in the particular area than many other candidates who could command higher rates, but that the experience I will gain in the role will enable me to command a higher rate in the future.

The fact is, while the concept of “equal pay for equal work” means companies can’t pay women and men different amounts for the same job, the reality is that there are very few jobs in which two people genuinely do the same job. Two colleagues with the same job description may end up doing vastly different jobs in reality – from the simplicity of a supermarket cashier who scans and bags items faster than a colleague and therefore serves more customers on a daily basis, to the car salesman who sells twice as many cars each month as his colleague, to the corporate project manager who consistently delivers on time and on budget versus her colleague who constantly lets deadlines slip.   Allowing higher-performing workers to negotiate a higher rate than their lower-performing colleagues, provides an incentive for people to perform better in the workplace.  And enabling companies to pay lower rates to less-experienced candidates in exchange for valuable training and experience gained, provides a more level playing field in which candidates with differing levels of experience can compete for the same roles.

One tiny gem of information that often appears to be overlooked in the BBC pay row precipitated by Carrie Gracie’s resignation as China editor, was that when she was first offered the job in 2013, she was assured that she would earn the same amount in Beijing as Mark Mardell was earning in Washington as North America editor. However, three months after she accepted the China job on these terms Mr Mardell left Washington and was replaced by Jon Sopel, on roughly twice as much.

This, to me, indicates that Jon Sopel did a masterful job of negotiating his salary – NOT that Carrie Gracie was underpaid. She clearly felt that the salary she was earning was acceptable when she took the job – if she didn’t negotiate a suitable raise in five years then that is a failing either on her part, or that of her agent. For her to suddenly decide her salary is too low, simply because she found that Jon Sopel had negotiated a far higher rate than his predecessor was on, is ludicrous.   Not to mention the fact that, as many people have pointed out, the North America editor appears on the news far more often than the China editor – the two roles are not identical, and it is well within the realms of possibility that Jon Sopel may have negotiated enhanced responsibilities compared to his predecessor.

Salary negotiations are not easy. Many people – particularly women but also some men – find it incredibly difficult to sell themselves, to put forward the argument that they are worth “the big bucks”. But seeking to level the playing field by simply paying people the same regardless of talent or contribution, is not the answer, particularly within professional fields where companies seek to attract the best talent, and where individuals seek roles that will challenge their own individual skillsets.

I was very fortunate to have had a manager at such an early stage of my career who took an interest in my career and pushed me to assert myself more.  But it is telling that without that encouragement, I may have continued to undersell myself throughout the intervening years, both in terms of my rate of pay and in terms of my expectations of support from my managers.  I am no shrinking violet, but the “gender confidence gap” is real and I would far rather read news articles, and watch TV debates, that analyse and seek to address the reasons behind it, than read nonsense about how women “stop being paid” on a certain day of the year.  Especially given the vast amount of time and effort that must have gone into providing such completely false – and ultimately worthless – information.

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1 Response to It’s time to challenge the false narrative of the “gender pay gap”

  1. Mr B J Mann says:

    “Why is it that women are – in general – less willing than men to negotiate higher salaries? Why don’t women advocate as forcefully for their ideas, or for promotion, as men?”

    Why is it that women with no family responsibilities, lesbians, childless married women, have for decades earned more than equally qualified and experienced men?

    And all women for years now, into their twenties, and now thirties, earn more than men with equal qualifications and experience?

    It’s only when women take time out for maternity leave, family responsibilities, etc, that the gender pay gap appears.

    Even a woman only planning to start a family can’t in practice chase promotions knowing they will be taking maternity leave just as they get their feet under the table.

    And if, as is usually the case, the husband will be the breadwinner, they certainly can’t go applying for better jobs in another part of the country, and dragging their husbands along hoping they will be able to find new employment in their new home, knowing they will be starting maternity leave just as they get settled in to the new home.

    It’s clearly not a question of (needing to) negotiate higher salaries, but of not being able to take up higher levels of responsibility and their salaries starting to fall down to equivalent men’s salary levels, and then go below them, while the men can continue to climb the greasy pole!


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