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Mind the Gap

UK law now requires employers to publish their annual gender pay gap data, but weeks from the April deadline 5 in every 6 still have yet to comply. The apathy shown towards this legislation shows how much more needs to be done.

In an effort to increase transparency and equality in the workplace, about 9,000 UK companies and public bodies are preparing to publish their gender pay gap data by April 2018.

Employers are now required to share the difference in average hourly earnings between men and women, as well as data on bonuses and gender representation across pay bands. Previous figures suggest the data will highlight a mean pay gap of about 15% in men’s favour.

But will this effort give meaningful results? Remarkably, employers are entitled to derive and report these figures with no independent oversight. For instance, fashion firm Hugo Boss has already altered its pay gap figures three times since their original release—including a 77% overnight jump in reported median pay.

A lack of transparency makes it difficult to compare pay data and allows employers to make excuses for the gender pay gap. There are claims the different occupations of men and women account for it, or even biological differences between the two. Neither are true.

So what’s behind the pay gap? In fact, the gap reflects diverse social and economic factors that affect women’s careers. In the UK, a female doctor earns £15,000 less than a male counterpart every year. Even after adjusting for differences in part-time work, maternity leave and experience, we see that women still earn significantly less for the same work.

In previous decades, educational disparity between boys and girls contributed significantly - unsurprisingly, better educated people tend to earn more. Since then, girls’ educational attainment has grown to rival the boys’. As a result, the gender pay gap in high-income countries now has much more to do with the characteristics of women’s employment—and much less to do with education.

Inequity of opportunity

Government reporting reveals that 89% of the two million people who are out of employment to look after children or the home are women. Women returning to work often occupy more flexible roles that fit in with the demands of raising a child, but have lower earning potential.

Conversely, men re-entering the workplace after time away do not suffer the same fate: they quickly resume with higher-earning roles. This disparity shows pay data alone is a uni-dimensional perspective that fails to capture hidden factors behind the gap.

Regrettably, the UK government’s current legislation avoids the issue. It ignores the determinants of the gap and misses the opportunity to address pay inequality.

Women should be able to return to work and continue in their careers, but too often this does not happen. One obstacle is having the major responsibility in running the household, as this may lead to pay discrimination.

Therefore, the social expectations and discrimination that limit women’s ability to return to work and thrive after extended leave – as men do – need to be addressed with long-term solutions.

To this end, we recommend how governments, employers and the public can help to achieve equal opportunities for all:

  • Governments must ensure that girls and boys receive a full and equal education, and that accurate and sufficient gender pay gap data are made available to support gender equality.

  • Employers should introduce fair and unbiased recruitment and promotion practices; family-friendly policy (such as shared parental leave, flexible working and guaranteed right-to-return); and new policy to tackle unequal gender distribution across the salary range.

  • Everyone can challenge unfair expectations and social norms that hold back women; this includes employers that do not address their gender pay gap.


This year’s UK pay gap data will highlight serious inequality in the workplace. Despite progress, women are still expected to choose between their personal life and career.

It is impossible to pretend that women have the same freedom of opportunity as men to return to work and succeed under current societal norms. Mandatory reporting of pay gap data is a good first step, but current UK legislation does not go far enough. Of course gender equality issues are not limited to the UK; here and elsewhere there is still a lot to do.

We hope that these figures will support progress towards pay equality. However, more detailed studies of the gender pay gap and inequality are needed to support meaningful change. The UK government can prove its commitment to equality by amending legislation to require publication and independent oversight of pay data.

100 years ago the Suffragettes won the right for nearly 6 million men without property to vote. Today women are still fighting for equality — men must stand up and join them.

About Polygeia

Polygeia is a student-run think tank engaging the UK’s brightest students in research on global health issues and policy. Polygeia champions women and girls, as well as their rights to equality as set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals. Detailed updates about our research into women’s health will be made available on this blog in due course.

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