The Causes of Gender Pay Inequality
Hugo O'Grady | 27 March 2017

Perhaps a good place to start would be to first set out what are generally considered as the main causes of the Gender Pay Gap in today’s society. One of the most controversial of these factors is direct discrimination, i.e. where women are given a lower wage than men purely because they are female. However, although it is still disputed, direct discrimination contributes little to the overall pay gap figure, thanks in no small part to the effectiveness of EU and national legislation, as well as the gradual demise of sexism in European nations over the past century or so.


Women’s work is also more frequently undervalued than that of men. In comparable jobs, where the labour efforts required for each individual occupation are of roughly equal value and require similar levels of skills, there should theoretically be roughly equal wages for each job. However, certain jobs may be dominated by one gender. Where these jobs are dominated by women there tends to be an undervaluation of their work compared to similar jobs that are male dominated, where overvaluation occurs. For example in supermarkets, comparable skills and qualifications are required by both the mainly male shelf stockers and mainly female cashiers, yet the shelf stockers tend to earn high wages.


Gender pay inequality is also strengthened by segregation in the labour market. In the economy as a whole there may be some sectors within an economy dominated, at least in participation terms, by one gender. There may also be jobs within a firm which might be filled with a majority of one gender, whilst other jobs of different pay tend to be filled by the other. However, it tends to be that many low paid unskilled jobs are dominated by women, such as cleaning, whereas many well-paying jobs, such as managers or scientists, are often dominated by men.


Traditions and stereotypes, not to be confused with direct discrimination, also play a part in determining the size of the Gender Pay Gap. Whilst in some circumstances these may be personal choices, many women’s educational and consequential career paths are influenced by the stereotypes they have been exposed to. For example, whilst women represent around 60% of new university graduates, they are in a minority in fields such as mathematics and engineering, which are seen as stereotypically male dominated subjects. These degrees however, often lead to many of the better paid graduate jobs, resulting in many women falling back into some of the lower skilled and lower paid sectors of employment within an economy from the beginning of their careers.


Different balances between work and private life also affect the Gender Pay Gap, with women tending to face more difficulties here than men. In truth, family, care and domestic responsibilities are not evenly shared between genders, with women often having to bear a disproportionate share of the tasks required to care for dependants. Many more mothers than fathers take extended parental leave, with fewer than one in ten men taking more than their two weeks statutory leave. This can cause women to leave the labour force for a significant portion of time, often returning through part-time work, which tends to have a lower hourly wage than full time work of equal value, which can therefore dent future full time pay prospects through lack of experience and consequent skills compared to their male counterparts. These career disruptions can also prevent women from earning promotions and higher wages. By taking maternity leave, women will miss out on some of their prime years of employment, leaving men’s wages to rise whilst theirs are likely to fall or remain constant, and hence the gap widens. 

James Routledge 2016