The gender pay gap - What is it and what can we do about it?

The gender pay gap takes many forms: from women doing more part-time work, to taking the hit for being on parental leave longer than their male partners


According to the BBC, the gender pay gap in the UK currently sits at 18.1% for all workers and 9.4% for full-time staff. Some people mistake the gender gap for being a gap in wages between men and women in the same position with the same qualifications. However, women do have legal entitlement to equal pay for equal work. So why is there a gender pay gap when men and women are required by law to be paid the same wage for the same work?

The gender pay gap leaves women with a significantly lower total pay than men during their working lives, due to several reasons. One of the biggest reasons as to why women receive lower earnings than men is because they remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate ladder. In other words, women do not often hold top management jobs. In fact, the percentage of women who hold managerial positions sits at just 37%. This issue is even more critical for women of colour who face even more barriers for being a ‘double minority’ due to their race and gender.

As a result of the underemployment of women, the workforce is likely to be deprived of talent given that women’s skills are not utilised effectively.

In order to address the issue of the gender pay gap, firstly we must question why the gender pay gap exists. This article shall discuss a few of the reasons as to why women earn less than men. Some of the themes which will be explored include: family responsibilities, the glass-ceiling and women’s chances at being promoted.

Why are women paid less than men?

1. Unequal distribution of family responsibilities


One of the principal reasons as to why women possess less senior positions than their male counterparts is due to the unequal distribution of family responsibilities. In other words, family responsibilities are not equally shared as women often assume more of these responsibilities and as a result, have more frequent career breaks.

  • Unequal maternity and paternity leave: By law, eligible female employees can take up to 52 weeks maternity leave with 39 of those weeks being paid. Men, on the other hand, are only granted a maximum of 2 weeks paid paternity leave. This unequal share of parental leave plays a significant role in expanding the pay gap. The CIPD claims that the UK lags behind 28 countries when it comes to sharing parental leave, due to men in the UK only being entitled to 2 weeks paid paternity leave. Evidently, it is still considered the norm for mothers to play the main role when caring for a new child, which can be reflected in both regulations and attitudes. However, a recent law allows women and men to share parental leave. This can enable women to return to work sooner and share the responsibility of childcare with their partner. Nevertheless, not every couple is entitled to shared parental leave.

  • Loss of confidence: In addition, there are some who believe that women often return to less senior roles as a result of a loss of confidence after being off on maternity leave. Sharing paternal leave and women returning to work sooner could be a way to avoid this loss of confidence.
  • More women than men work part-time: After going on maternity leave, women do not always return to a full-time job. This is mostly due to childcare responsibilities. In fact, according to the BBC, women are three times more likely to be part-time workers than men. From April until June 2016, 41% of women in the UK were working part-time - a stark contrast to the 12% of men who were working on a part-time basis. Given that part-time workers are on average paid 32% less per hour than full-time employees, women earn on average 16% less per hour than men. This contributes significantly to the gender pay gap.

2. The infamous glass-ceiling

The CIPD defines the glass ceiling as the barrier to women achieving senior positions in organisations due to different reasons. 

  • Unfair perceptions of women: Some people hold certain perceptions of women not being able to compete with their male colleagues, which is caused by the fact that women are underrepresented in the more senior roles and so there is a belief that women are also unable to perform these jobs.
  • Underrepresentation of women: Because there are very few women in these types of roles, other women in the organisation are not encouraged to aspire to reach the higher positions. 

However, when women actually manage to ‘break through the glass ceiling’, there are certain negative outcomes associated with it.

  • An unfortunate outcome of women being able to break through the ceiling is that several of them adopt male behavioural traits. This is the result of trying to fit in into an environment dominated by men. 
  • When women manage to obtain more senior roles they are often worked against by junior contemporaries and struggle to ‘earn their respect’. This is purely because they are a female in an important role.
  • Likewise, women in senior roles are often viewed as a ‘queen bee’ by others in the organisation. This attitude, however, does not exist towards men in similar positions. 

Fortunately, research predicts that the women of Generation Y will be the first generation to break through the glass ceiling. This is because there exists a need for a new set of leadership skills which are different from the typical masculine leadership skills and the women of generation Y often possess these sought-after skills.

3. Women are less likely to be promoted

Another reason as to why women don’t hold as many top management positions as their male counterparts is because they are less likely to be promoted.

The higher you look in organisations, the fewer women you will see. Despite having made considerable progress regarding women’s rights, women remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate ladder. For example, the percentage of women in C-suite positions stands at just 19%.

Here are a few reasons as to why women are not promoted:

  • Difference in attitudes between women and men: Studies have shown that whilst men tend to ignore their weaknesses and apply for promotions, women, on the other hand, tend to focus on their weaknesses and therefore believe that they are not equipped for the role in question. Even if a woman is more qualified than a man for the relevant role, it is more likely be the man who applies for the promotion. This means that women’s skills and abilities aren’t best utilised which serves as an opportunity cost for many organisations. Women, therefore, must have confidence in highlighting their strengths and in going after what they want. 
  • Women expect less: Women often believe that their gender will act as a barrier to getting a promotion. In fact, women are 3 times more likely than their male counterparts to think that their gender will make it more difficult to get a promotion or raise. This is the result of female employees continually witnessing the notable absence of women in managerial roles. Consequently, women are not encouraged to reach these higher roles as they can often believe that if there is an opportunity to be promoted to a higher position, a man will undoubtedly be awarded with the promotion. 
  • Unconscious gender bias: According to Harvard’s global online research study, 76% of people are gender-biased and believe that men are more suited to certain careers than women. This gender-bias is also present in board members, albeit unconsciously. It is for this reason that women are less likely to be promoted as they are often considered as weak contenders to their male counterparts and unable to perform top management jobs.

Why is it so vital to eliminate the gender pay gap?

Not only is closing the gender pay gap the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense for organisations and for the country as a whole.

  1. Strengthen organisations: The lack of qualified women in top management roles is a huge opportunity cost for companies. To illustrate, women’s skills and abilities aren’t being best utilised and companies aren’t tapping into the entire available talent pool. Closing the gap and promoting qualified women to senior roles means that companies can strengthen the available skills set of their teams and improve their organisational success. 
  2. Boost the economy: In a similar manner, the UK Government statistics suggest that the economy could grow 10% by 2030 if women could find the right jobs. 
  3. Promote gender equality: eliminating the gender pay gap is also a huge step towards achieving gender equality.

How do we change this?
1. Recommendations for women:
  • Expect more. Expect equal pay. Ask for what you want. Don’t wait to be promoted - go after promotions yourself. 
2. Recommendations for men:

  • According to a study that was conducted by the Institute of Leadership & Management, only 38% of men agreed that the glass ceiling still exists. Men should therefore be encouraged to read reports and studies on this topic, to understand that the glass ceiling is still very much an issue, and for them to reflect on their role within it. 
3. Recommendations for education professionals:

  • Encourage girls and young women to study subjects and pursue careers that have been traditionally dominated by men. Make it clear that there is no such thing as female and male jobs and teach them that women can pursue a career in any field. 
4. Recommendations for employers:

  • The CIPD/ Telefonica recommends that organisations should assess where the gender imbalances can be found and if there is a specific level where women stop progressing and if so, seek to understand why that is happening. 
  • Report on the gender pay gap within your company. By law, companies with 250 or more employees will have to report of their gender pay gaps by April 2018. This will help employers to identify ways in which the gap can be tackled and it will also encourage them to take fast action to eliminate any gender pay gap. 
  • Provide female employees with more feedback. As has been proven several times, women ask for feedback from their employers just as much as men however, they are less likely to receive it. Providing feedback to female employees can help them to recognise their strengths and they may, therefore, feel more confident in going after a promotion. 
  • Ensure your workplace is gender diverse. Otherwise stated, ensure that both women and men are represented at every level in the corporate pipeline.