What is the gender pay gap and how can we address it?

Laura looks at some of the root causes of the gender pay gap and some of the proposed solutions

Written by Laura Egan


Gender pay gap V equal pay

The gender pay gap. You’ve probably got an opinion on it. But what do you know about it? Do you know for example, what the main reasons contributing to this ever increasing gap between women and men are? Or even what the gender pay gap really means?

It’s a tough one, that’s been long debated by the world and it’s Mam. Yet, the mistake a lot of people make when it comes to this issue, is failing to understand that the issue of equal pay and the gender pay gap are separate.

For example in the Republic of Ireland it is illegal for an employer to pay two employees differently for the same role based on “gender, or non-gender reasons”. This is made possible by the Employment Equality Act of 1998. So technically speaking we have equal pay in the Republic of Ireland. Still in Ireland the gender pay gap has been slowly increasing in recent years.

So what, you may ask, is the problem? As is the way with these issues, the answer is complicated because despite this law, on average in 2017 Irish women were paid 14% less than Irish men. To put this into perspective, on average Irish women will be working for free from approximately November 10th, almost 2 months out of the year. What’s more throughout Europe the average number increases to 16% and the gap gets even wider when we look at the pay gap between white women and women of colour.

What causes the gender pay gap?

We can attribute this to many different causes, such as the assumed role of women in caring responsibilities and childcare, not enough women in senior positions, lack of transparency by companies when it comes to pay, in some cases just plain discrimination and the list goes on.

These issues all impact the gender pay gap in different ways. In terms of caring responsibilities, once a heterosexual couple have children it's a long standing societal assumption that the woman will stay at home permanently, or take up a part-time position to care for her children. While some women happily choose to take this path these stereotypes and assumptions can often leave some women feeling pressured or guilted into giving up or delaying their careers to assume stereotypical roles. Statistically speaking women in Ireland are less likely than men to be in the workforce. There are differences depending on education level and, particularly, whether the woman has a child or not, but generally this is the case.

Women are also more likely to go into certain fields that are traditionally lower paying, such as childcare, nursing and teaching. We still have a serious lack of women in professional roles such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Last year, the Royal Irish Academy published a report, noting that women are more likely than men to drop out of STEM careers altogether, while those that remained face barriers to promotion. While half of academic lecturers are female, this drops to less than one in five at a professor level. This issue is replicated again in junior versus senior management positions in the private sector.

Women are being generally undervalued and underestimated in the workplace. They are working lower paid jobs, and they are under-represented in professional fields. This can in part be brought back to plain ole discrimination, Trinity College Dublin didn’t open its doors to women until 1904, almost 400 years after its establishment. The first women in Ireland to study for a medical degree didn't do so until the second half of the 19th century less than 200 years ago. So is it really any wonder we’re still struggling to catch up?

To cut a long story short, the gender pay gap is about so much more than “she gets paid less than him”. It’s a systemic issue, with dozens of causes and factors to consider that has been ingrained throughout society for thousands of years.

Of course there are many women who choose to leave work, or work part-time for a whole boatload of reasons.

However this does not, and can not account for the gapping differences in the pay of women and men, and we can’t pretend it does and continue to ignore the underlying issues.

How can we address this?

So what's the solution? How do we fix it? How can we bridge this gap? Many argue that it starts with education, encouraging girls from a young age and putting them on track to pursue professional high power careers.

Recently we have seen several Irish initiatives to encourage young Irish women to enter high powered, professional careers. Such as I Wish, an initiative to “inspire, encourage and motivate young secondary school female students to pursue careers in STEM”  by providing them with role models and working with not only students but parents and teachers to encourage STEM topics.

Universities are also getting involved, with NUIG holding taster days and summer school courses in their engineering department for Transition year students aimed at opening young girls up to engineering as a career opportunity.

Others say enforcing gender quotas in is the answer starting in politics. The thinking here is that if for example, political parties are obliged to nominate women to at least thirty per cent of their total candidacies, the rest of the country will be lead by example.

Other suggestions include, increased paternity leave, more supports for women returning to work after maternity or family leave and generally researching the issue further.

I don’t know if any one of these ideas can work alone, but one way or another change has to come.

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