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No guarantee that gender pay gap will close

Progress towards equal pay in the UK is proving “elusive” and there is no guarantee that the gap can be bridged against the backdrop of continued austerity and the changing dynamics of working life.

Jill Rubery, Professor of Comparative Employment Systems, told an International Women’s Day debate on the gender pay gap that there were still many myths around the whole subject that needed to be debunked.

“People talk about closing the gender pay gap as if it is some kind of an inevitable process, but I would argue that new forms of gender pay gaps keep emerging. We cannot guarantee that it will close and we might even see a widening in the future.”

While accepting that there had been progress in closing the gap among full-time workers, Prof Rubery said the figures showed a different story for women working part-time who were caught in a pay trap. “For part-time women there are few opportunities outside of the public sector for pay progression over the life course, and furthermore no automatic rights to move back to full-time work.”

 Austerity impact

She added that the introduction of gender pay audits were also hamstrung by austerity. “Two thirds of all women with a degree work in the public sector, yet if real terms pay in the public sector continues to fall as it has done then there is no chance or eradicating the gender pay gap.”

Prof Rubery added that although women have moved into many traditionally higher paid jobs previously dominated by men, these jobs have then often been downgraded. “We have seen evidence of this in sectors such as law where more women become senior lawyers within their firm, yet the number of highest paid partners within the firm has at the same time been reduced. There are a lot of examples of women entering male-dominated jobs which have then been associated with restructuring.”


She said the undervaluation of women’s work was still one of the main factors causing the gender pay gap.

“The skills of women are often not visible, while we also have the low value-added problem where women tend to be employed in industries where profits are more pressured such as the care sector. Companies either cannot pay more or choose not to pay more.”

She said the move to a “results-based culture” where you are expected to work irregular hours to meet targets further complicated the problem.

“In many jobs part-time work which might suit women, and especially mothers, is simply not feasible because of this culture.” She also described flexible working as another new kind of pay trap because you cannot transfer the right to work flexibly to another employer.

Policy impact

Prof Rubery called for a number of pay policies to help close the gap:

*continued promotion of a high national minimum wage

*removing freezes/caps in public sector pay

*re-regulating working time

*reducing claw back rates on tax credits

*raising maternity pay to stop households always having to rely on a male breadwinner

The University debate was organised by the Athena SWAN team at Alliance MBS. The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women.