Why do women continue to experience inequalities at work?

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In the last decade women have been entering professional and managerial positions in roughly the same proportions as men in the UK. However, they remain vastly underrepresented in top jobs while the gender pay gap is reported to have widened since 2006 from 92% to 95% globally.

In the UK, women make up around a quarter of FTSE 100 board members in 2015 up from 12.5% in 2011, but there are still fewer than 8% of women in executive roles. Equally, the gender pay gap in the UK persists mainly because the growth in men’s earnings outstrips that of women at the top end of the earnings distribution.

Research shows that the wage gap starts from day one and grows continuously throughout women’s careers while the ‘narrowing’ of the pay gap when it happens is mostly confined to early stages of women’s careers.

The gender pay gap is growing, especially in highly paid professions such as accountancy, law, consultancy and business, but even in ‘feminised’ sectors men tend to be over represented in top paid jobs.

There are many reasons and explanations why women do not get the same opportunities for career progression and pay as men do. Cultural assumptions stereotyping women as less willing or able and historical patterns reflecting men’s social power explain the persistent undervaluation of women’s work.

Behavioural ethics research suggests that many such assumptions are due to unconscious bias that both women and men share. Social psychologists found that self-professed egalitarians may also be prone to such unconscious biases. These concern feelings and knowledge (often unintended) about their social group membership (e.g. concerning age, race/ethnicity, gender, class). Power operates at a subconscious level and discrimination is often tacit and rationalised post-hoc.

Unconscious bias can, in part, explain the propensity of many executives to hire in their own image which reproduces the lack of diversity in the companies’ boards. But in organisations that adopt meritocratic policies, managers tend to favour a male over an equally qualified female employee and award him a larger monetary reward perhaps because they no longer see the necessity to address the exiting inequalities or for the fear of discriminating against men (see The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organisations).

HR departments have an important role to play in identifying and acknowledging such bias - and addressing this in recruitment processes. Senior women and men who tend to be overrepresented in top high-paid jobs should take steps to teach other women tactics and strategies that are most effective. Making pay scales explicit could also have major impact on transparency in promotion. 

Despite substantial gains in reducing the gender pay gap the rate of progress has decreased in recent years and, in some cases, reversed. Legislative protection in important, but we should not assume that a convergence in men’s and women’s earnings will automatically continue into the future without organisations taking proactive measures.



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