7 November 2013 was Equal Pay Day in the UK: the day on which, due to the gender pay gap, women in effect stopped being paid for the rest of the year.
In the same week, European trade unionists gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the final conference of the European TUC’s 'Bargaining For Equality' project. The Project sought to address inequality in men's and women's wages, and to identify ‘collective bargaining’ strategies that trade unions could use to tackle these inequalities.
What is the Gender Pay Gap?
The gender pay gap (the difference between men’s and women’s earnings) can be measured in various ways: for example, hourly, monthly or annual pay; gross or net; including or excluding bonuses, overtime and other extra payments.
Across the European Union, the gap between men’s and women’s average gross hourly earnings narrowed from 17.6% in 2007 to 16.2% in 2011. The real-life gap – the difference in the money in our pockets – will undoubtedly be even wider than this, as women tend to work fewer paid hours due to unpaid caring responsibilities.
The gender pay gap narrowed in 16 out of 25 countries. The largest reductions were in Lithuania, the Netherlands and Slovenia; moderate reductions were in Denmark, Cyprus, Malta, Poland, Sweden, Slovak Republic and the UK; and the gap fell by less than 1% in Belgium, France, Finland, Luxembourg, Romania and Spain.
It is - or at least it should be - shocking that such inequality still exists. The gender pay gap is gradually narrowing, but hold back the celebrations: firstly, it is not narrowing nearly fast enough, and secondly, part of the reason for the narrowing is the lowering of men's wages during the economic crisis. We want the gap to close through women’s wages rising: levelling up not levelling down.
It is estimated that between 10% and 15% of the cause of the gender pay gap is a result of straightforward discrimination. Other factors that impact on the gender pay gap include:
bargaining coverage (the extent to which trade unions are recognised by employers and involved in pay negotiations)
the way that pay is set (this may be on a company-by-company basis, or there may be national, industry-wide pay talks; in some industries in some countries, pay is set according to a particular formula, in others it is a matter for employer-union talks)
unequal balance of work and family and a lack of flexible working arrangements, which result in a ‘wage penalty’ for women workers
women’s over-representation in casual, temporary, part-time and low paid work
a segregated workforce where women are clustered into lower-paid and lower-valued occupations and sectors
gender socialisation (the extent to which men and women are raised to expect to go into particular jobs, and the extent to which ‘women’s work’ is paid less than ‘men’s work’)
the ‘glass ceiling’ and the under-representation of women in higher paid jobs
the level of the legal minimum wage
the level of overall equality in a particular country
the degree of overall pay inequality i.e. the greater the difference between high and low pay rates in a country, the wider the gender pay gap also tends to be.
Collective approaches result in better employment conditions and a smaller gender pay gap.
Many trade unions have put in place strategies and policies to fight for reduced pay inequalities between women and men; and many have put in place training and guidelines for collective bargaining teams, and measures to improve the representation of women in collective bargaining.
Effective trade union collective bargaining strategies include:
ascertaining information about the gender pay gap; demanding information from employers
assessing both the union's pay claim and the employer's offer for their impact on the gender pay gap
opposing performance-related pay and reliance on overtime
highlighting the demand for flat-rate pay increases (rather than a straightforward percentage rise which gives bigger monetary rises to people who are already better-paid)
tackling issues that have been shown to narrow the gender pay gap eg. improved childcare / work-life balance
If trade unions bring these strategies into pay negotiations, that would be a good start. But talking only gets so far; action outside the negotiating room can take it much further! Active campaigns and industrial action to win pay rises for low-paid, female-dominated work eg. contract cleaners, will not only benefit those workers but will also narrow the overall gender pay gap.
After I attended and reported back from the European conference, my union – the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) – has agreed to ascertain the gender pay gap in the industries and companies where it organises, and to adopt the collective bargaining approaches listed above in order to reduce the gender pay gap through levelling-up.
I am sure that the union’s women activists will be speaking up to ensure that the union follows through with this commitment!