Gender and pay inequality. Building a bridge or digging a tunnel?

By Yvonne Sawbridge (Senior Associate, HSMC)

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If the first step towards making any change is in realising that change is required - sometimes we need to make the invisible visible, and give a voice to those previously unheard. The fact that the gender pay gap is once again, a topic of debate, and voices are being raised, is to be welcomed therefore as a start to bridging this gap. The Governments’ Gender Pay Gap Inquiry reported “…that the key causes of pay differentials are: the part-time pay penalty; women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and other forms of unpaid caring; and the concentration of women in highly feminised, low paid sectors like care, retail and cleaning.” Wide-ranging issues therefore - and not one of these amenable to a quick fix I would posit.

Who is judging the value of the work?

In my own profession (nursing) I have always been puzzled about why it attracts such low material rewards. The role of the nurse involves supporting people when they are distressed, suffering, suicidal, frail, frightened and dying. It involves the ability to take critical decisions and utilise highly sophisticated technical skills. The realities of this are rarely discussed, and the range of skills required to manage the emotional labour required is seldom explored. Indeed a recent equal pay claim in a supermarket argued that the checkout operators (mainly women) should have equal pay with the warehouse and delivery workforce (mainly men). I could provide good grounds for stating that, in fact their claim should be for higher pay, as dealing with customers takes far greater skill and much higher levels of emotional labour! It depends who is judging the value of the work of course. Feminisation of nursing and checkouts feels like a sensible hypothesis, and points to a deeper issue than lodging equal pay claims - important though they are.

Even at the top of my profession - as a director in a number of organisations - whilst well remunerated in contrast to the nursing workforce, I was the least well paid director. Somehow, the core business of the organisation - providing healthcare services, delivered mainly by women - did not end up being reflected in the pay structures. Of course finance, estates, operations and commissioning functions are crucial support to service delivery and good patient care, but that is just it. If they are the supporting mechanisms, why are they the better paid positions? This dilution of pay is also evident at ward sisters/charge nurse levels. Their role is the linchpin of good patient care and they are key role models to help develop the next generation of compassionate nurses. Most are on a Band 7 of the pay scale: £31-35k, the same level as procurement team manager, information analyst team manager - and indeed many recruitment and sales operatives in the external NHS world.

A wicked problem

It is of course fraught with difficulty in trying to agree the comparative worth of different roles. However, there does seem to be a clear differential in feminised work and traditional male roles, and their levels of pay. How we tackle this may require a very different set of solutions. It is undoubtedly a wicked problem, requiring leaders to ask questions and remain curious rather than posing obvious solutions.

I am currently reading Mary Beard’s book Women and Power and dispirited and enlightened in equal terms. She argues that we need to fundamentally change the power structures in order to achieve gender equality, and that silencing women (overtly or covertly) is embedded in our culture. The codes of power are defined by men. Whilst individual women may find ways to break through, by adopting these codes, equal pay for equal work are a distant dream if the value of the work is set by a male dominated perspective. This indicates a different approach to unearthing this issue. To close this gender pay gap might require digging a tunnel to unearth what lies beneath - rather than building a bridge across the workspace. Whilst not decrying the need for this current level of debate and proposed actions, perhaps we need to rethink the whole fabric of what we value in society if we are to successfully tackle unequal pay in the workplace? In the meantime, let’s celebrate success where we find it and welcome the air time being devoted to this topic. It makes a change from focusing on our Prime Minister’s kitten heels…