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International Women’s Day: deeds not words

Earlier this week, people around the world celebrated International Women’s Day. But as organisations proudly showcased their female role models, critics pointed to the continuing challenge of closing the gender pay gap – a gulf that may have widened during the pandemic.

Newsletter from 11 March 2022

This year, on International Women’s Day (IWD), many organisations that tweeted their support for gender equality by showcasing positive female role models were hit by a Twitterbot that revealed their gender pay gap. The bot automatically retweeted the IWD message, adding a statistic comparing the organisation’s typical hourly pay for women with that for men.

In the UK, gender pay gap information is available for all organisations with over 250 employees, as a consequence of the government’s gender pay gap reporting requirement. These data reveal the stark reality that women are paid less than men in the overwhelming majority of big organisations. As of April 2021, women working full-time time earned 7.9% less than men. The overall pay gap is wider than this because a higher proportion of women working part-time typically have lower hourly wages than those paid to full-time workers.

This IWD, the reported gender pay gap information was used effectively to name and shame organisations. But research shows that publicising the level of disparity can also help to reduce the gender pay gap itself. Recent analysis has made use of the fact that reporting is required for firms above a certain size to compare changes over time in men and women’s pay for larger (affected) and smaller (unaffected) firms.

In Denmark, the requirement for organisations to report their gender pay gap information resulted in a narrowing of the gap – largely achieved through a reduction in pay increases for men. In the UK, the requirement to report and publish has increased women’s probability of working in high-wage jobs (with evidence showing that firms adopt more women-friendly recruitment strategies) and has closed the gender pay gap by reducing men’s real hourly pay.

But the pace of change is slow and further steps need to be taken, particularly to tackle the unequal effects of having children on men and women. Economic research finds clear evidence that women’s earnings are significantly and permanently reduced after becoming a parent, while the same is not true for men. Women bear an unequal burden of caring responsibilities, which often causes them to switch to part-time work (or leave work altogether). It also means that women are more likely to hold back from applying for promotion and often choose jobs closer to home.

Coming out of the pandemic, an increase in working from home could allow people to combine working and caring more easily. But at the height of the crisis, many women suffered from bearing the brunt of childcare and working from home, which meant juggling two jobs (formal work and informal care). And yet some have suggested that the pandemic may lead to an erosion of gender norms with respect to the allocation of childcare in the long run.

There certainly is demand for more flexible working. Between 19 January and 30 January 2022 – after the end of the working from home guidelines – 36% of working adults reported having worked from home at least once in the last seven days. But it is important that both mothers and fathers take advantage of working from home opportunities to combine work and caring. It is crucial that flexible working is not stereotyped as the ‘mommy track’, as warned by Catherine Mann, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

When it comes to men and women, gender stereotypes are hugely important for understanding many differences in behaviours, including the division of childcare. Worryingly, evidence from France and the United States shows that gender attitudes regressed during the pandemic.

In France, both men and women with young children became more likely to believe that a woman’s job is to look after the family. In the United States, there was increased support for fathers as disciplinarians and mothers as schedulers for their children. There were also significant increases in agreement with the propositions that mothers are happier at home, should not work when they have young children, and should usually stay home.

Employers have an important role to play in helping to overcome these stereotypes, for example, by promoting flexible working by both men and women and encouraging uptake of shared parental leave by fathers. Hopefully, these same employers will celebrate next IWD not just with images of female role models, but with positive stories of real change.

Author: Sarah Smith
Picture by champc on iStock
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