David Cameron’s pledge to “end the pay gap in a generation” is big talk, but hard to swallow from the same person who has cut funding for essential services for women, including domestic-violence shelters, rape-crisis centres and childcare centres (which even his own mother and aunt are unhappy about). Yet, despite that, today the government has announced impressive new measures which leading feminist campaigners Fawcett has called “the best opportunity in a generation” to close the gap.
Cameron initially made the announcement last year but, after a period of consultancy, Nicky Morgan, minister for women and equalities, has revealed new legislation to force companies with over 250 members of staff to publish salaries of men and women, including both the mean and medium figure. Companies will also need to show how many women and men work in each income quartile and reveal the gap in bonuses, too. Additionally, the government has announced they are investing in recruiting teachers into STEM subjects to help encourage more than 15,000 girls to choose careers in maths and science by 2020. Hopefully, the two ends will meet – young girls will find the confidence to pick careers that are (eventually) paid equally. Some critics, such the TUC’s Francis O’Grady and Labour MP Dan Jarvis, are angry, however, that the league tables won’t be published until 2018.
I spoke to Conservative MP Caroline Dinenage, minister for women, equalities and family justice. Dinenage told me that the pay gap was virtually non-existent under 40, but it was over 40 where the problems really kicked in. (The facts don't always hold this up – for example, female law graduates are paid on average £8,000 less than their male counterparts.) Is this because women in their forties are in more senior roles and the higher the ladder you climb, the bigger the gap? Partly, Dinenage told me, but she also referred to issues around women taking time out to have children. That’s the other gap: the maternity gap, where women take time off to have kids, come back and never quite match the salaries (and, arguably, status) of the men in their workplaces.
For the first time, some businesses seem to not be asking, “How do we get rid of her?” but “How do we make her stay?”
This is not news. Women fearing the consequences of having a baby on their careers and pay is well documented. But there seems to be an interesting new shift: some businesses are now worrying what impact having kids will have on women’s careers, too – not because they don’t want to pay out maternity (I’m sure there are still cases of that), but because they are slowly (very slowly) starting to realise the benefits of having women in the workplace (probably as more women start to claw their way into leadership positions). Last week, Deloitte’s CEO called out a loyalty crisis among millennials, particularly millennial women. A lot of young women are stepping away from companies that punish them (be it in pay or career progression or demands for working hours) when they choose to have a family. And, now, companies are finding they are losing out on talent. For the first time, some businesses seem to not be asking, “How do we get rid of her?” but “How do we make her stay?”
I ask Dinenage how the business community has responded to the government’s new legislation . Positively, she says, quoting remarks of encouragement from business leaders. One of the companies she mentions is Deloitte.
So, is today’s announcement about a government trying to push through measures for a fairer society, or is it a reflection that the business community is finally conceding the need to treat women fairly and so only now will the government do something about it?
And, of course, the gender pay gap doesn’t just exist in elite, corporate firms. Or, as it’s well documented, in the lofty world of Jennifer Lawrence in Hollywood. It's important to remember it exists in other places, often in lower-paid, part-time work. The gender pay gap doesn’t just speak to sexism in the boardroom – it’s a product of a society that devalues women at many different levels.
Naming and shaming companies who continue to pay unequally is a positive move, even if we have to wait another two years before we can. “There’s nowhere to hide” booms a press release from Morgan’s office. But, yesterday, as David Cameron blocked compulsory sex and relationships education in schools, and as austerity measures continue to hit women harder, I’d like to say one thing to the prime minister: the pay gap is an important struggle for women. But it’s not the only one. And it mustn’t be used to hide a mountain of other harmful measures against women.