In Depth

The gender pay gap UK: How bad is it?

Despite efforts to level the playing field, there is still a substantial difference between the salaries of men and women

It has been illegal for employers to differentiate between men and women when it comes to pay and conditions of employment since the Equal Pay Act 1970. But, new research has found there is still a substantial gap between the salaries men receive and those of women in equivalent roles.

How bad is the pay gap?

The gap in average hourly wages between men and women is currently 18 per cent, according to the latest report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). This is steadily shrinking from 28 per cent in 1993 and 23 per cent in 2003.

However, dig into the research and the picture is substantially bleaker. "For the mid- and high-educated, the gender wage gap is essentially the same as it was 20 years ago," says the IFS.  The only group that has seen in a reduction is employees with qualifications below an A-level.

Another reason why the headline gap has shrunk is that women are becoming more educated and so able to work in better-paid jobs.

Motherhood brings a pay cut

Having children also sees the gender pay gap widen dramatically. By the time a child is 12, says the IFS, their mother is likely to be earning 33 per cent less per hour than the equivalent male employee.

This is down to mothers working fewer hours - women working 20 hours or less per week miss out on pay rises, meaning the hourly wages of colleagues in full-time work pull ahead.

"We are wasting women's skills and experience because of the way we choose to structure our labour market," says Sam Smethers, the chief executive of The Fawcett Society campaign group, in The Guardian. "Part-time workers can be the most productive, yet reduced hours working becomes a career cul-de-sac for women from which they can't recover."

Who is to blame?

Whenever a report comes out about the gender pay gap, it is accompanied with commentary about how there is "much more to do". But, it may not be employers who have to change.

Ben Southwood, of the Adam Smith Institute, argues the difference in wages is the result of women's own choices.

"There is a gender pay gap, but the entirety of it is determined by 'legitimate' factors - things which make men's and women's labour different,” he says.

"As well as women having jobs they rate as more pleasant and jobs that are objectively less risky, as well as doing more part-time work, women leave the labour market during crucial years, setting them substantially back in labour market terms. That is, the gap comes down to women’s choices.

"This is not necessarily a bad thing, since childcare seems to contribute to mothers' well-being and happiness and looking after children is certainly not an unimportant task."

But Southwood is missing an important point – childcare isn't down to women alone.

"Childcare is not a woman's issue. It's everyone's issue and if we want to end the pay gap, it needs to be treated that way," says Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph. "The Government seems to be struggling with this concept. Earlier this month, it gave Caroline Dinenage – parliamentary under secretary of state for women and equalities – the additional brief of 'early years'. They have lumped together equality, women and childcare, suggesting that all are 'women’s issues'."

What can be done about it?

If we want to see the back of the gender pay gap, we have to stop seeing women as either mothers or career women. Childcare has to be viewed as the joint responsibility of both mothers and fathers.

"Why have we organised things so that propagating the species remains the single most harmful thing a woman can do to her career?" asks Richard Godwin in the London Evening Standard. "If men and women were entitled to precisely the same childcare leave it would disincentivise discrimination at a stroke while liberating men to act as caregivers."

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