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Parity time? Closing the gender pay gap

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 24 April 2015
  2. Employment
  3. 0 comments
Nervous female employee

Despite the great strides that have been made towards equality, a gender pay gap still persists in the UK, meaning that women as a whole earn around 19% less than men. The reasons for it are in many cases not as simple as blatant discrimination, but it is clearly still an issue that needs to be dealt with.

So what causes the wage gap, what laws have been introduced to tackle it, and how much is yet to be done?

Maternity and childrearing

One of the reasons given for the wage gap is the ‘motherhood penalty’, wherein female workers are given fewer opportunities due to having children, or find their careers stalling after returning from maternity leave. In fact, young women are sometimes perceived as being risky hires on the assumption that they may want to have children in the near future, regardless of whether or not they have any such plans.

Coming back to work after becoming a mother often involves a return on part-time hours because of childcare responsibilities, which can lead to limited opportunities for career advancement or even being effectively demoted. A recent report from the UN’s International Labour Organization says that the UK is particularly bad on this front due to a lack of affordable or subsidised childcare, forcing mothers into roles which allow them to look after their children within normal working hours.

Even those who return to work full-time, however, find that in many cases that they are treated as being less capable and less suited to more senior positions, with the wage gap widening from age 30 onwards.

The ‘motherhood penalty’ persists despite anti-discrimination rules which already state that women should not be treated unfavourably in the workplace as a result of becoming pregnant or giving birth. There are also protections for part-time workers which aim to prevent them from being employed under less favourable terms and conditions than their full-time counterparts, as well as the fact that discrimination against them may be considered indirect sex discrimination due to the large number of women in these roles.

One possible approach to the problem is to grant more flexibility to parents to allow them to share the responsibilities of childcare, meaning that women will have more opportunities to take on roles which traditionally they might have had to forgo.

The current government has made some headway in this area with the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, which allows the bulk of maternity leave to be shared between the parents as they wish. Hopefully this could lead to fewer women being forced to sacrifice their career for the sake of their children, and fewer assumptions being made by employers about the relative suitability of men and women for particular roles.

How work is valued

One wider issue is that typically ‘feminine’ work is valued less than roles which are seen as more masculine. Many professions which have historically been primarily occupied by men, such as engineering or construction, tend to command higher wages than careers in, for example, teaching or healthcare, which are often skewed towards female participation.

As an example, in 2012, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Birmingham City Council had neglected their responsibility to give equal pay when it was discovered that women working in roles such as catering, cleaning and care had been denied the bonuses paid to men on the same pay grade working as refuse collectors, street cleaners, road workers and in other male-dominated roles.

This case was made possible by equality laws which require people doing work of ‘equal value’ to that of a comparable worker of the opposite gender to receive equal employment terms, which includes pay and benefits. This goes some way towards tackling the wage gap by ensuring that certain roles are not undervalued due to their association with being ‘women’s work’.

With an overrepresentation of women in low-wage sectors being a big cause of the overall wage gap, another way of tackling this issue would be to encourage women to take up a career in traditionally male-dominated fields. Equality legislation already makes it legal to hire a female candidate over a male one for a job in a field in which women are traditionally underrepresented, as long as she is as suited to the job as he is. (The same is also true for men seeking roles in female-dominated industries.)

Further possible action could involve efforts to increase wages in traditionally low-paid sectors. Many campaigners have been pushing for the introduction of a Living Wage, which would no doubt assist in helping to narrow the pay gap and improve the lot of underpaid workers across the UK.


Probably the most obvious reason for women being paid less than men, simple discrimination, where a woman is assumed to be less competent than a man, is less acceptable than it once was. However, it does still take place, whether consciously or not.

Many people assume that discrimination can only ever be the result of some cackling oppressor seeking to stamp on the rights of minorities, but more commonly it takes the form of unexamined prejudices and assumptions which can lead to biased decisions being made, by men or women. One of the many ways this can manifest itself is the wage gap, whether it’s due to paying women less in the first place or neglecting to offer them promotions or an improved salary.

On the surface, it might seem like there is little more the law can do about discrimination, with the Equality Act 2010 already having clearly forbidden it. However, whether or not discrimination law is being appropriately enforced is another question entirely – the coalition government’s austerity strategy has led to the introduction of hefty fees for employment tribunals, meaning that workers seeking compensation for discrimination by their employer must first find £1,200 to fund their claim.

Figures from last month show that the number of sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination claims have fallen by 82% and 40% respectively since the introduction of tribunal fees, so it seems in many cases the perpetrators of gender discrimination in the workplace are getting away with it.

The wage gap has many causes, but, though much has been done to narrow it, there are still steps that can be taken and improvements that can be made. Whether it can be wiped out entirely, however, will depend on the willingness of politicians and lawmakers to take action.

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