How Does it Feel to Work for Free?

The average gender pay gap across European Union countries is 16.3 percent. Ladies, from 2 November till 31 December, we’re working for free.

Monday, 2 November, was Equal Pay Day. In other words, it was a moment where to draw attention (again) to the glaring lack of measures taken to bridge the gender pay gap. I could not, however, find evidence that something has happened.

In 2015, men in the EU earn on average 16.3 percent more than women, for an hour of work. A different look at this inequality is that women, in fact, work 59 days per year for free.

And it is not a question of skills or education level. The European Commission highlights:

Women tend to earn less per hour than men for the same job whether it is a highly-skilled profession like a doctor or nurse or a lower-skilled job such as a salesperson. The gender pay gap exists across our economy, and in all sectors and occupations.

Some regulations are in place meaning that “it is illegal to discriminate against women in the labour market and pay women lower wages than men when doing the same work or work that is of equal value.” Unfortunately, these rules are mainly useless. To my knowledge, no statistics exists showcasing how often a woman has filed a complaint against discrimination at work. Call it ‘glass ceiling,’ if you like. But how often has it happened to you to be more or less directly asked about family life prospects when at a job interview? It is illegal. However, we still get this question.

If you liked the 16.3-percent discrepancy above, you would love the Commission’s other numbers. For ex., in its fact sheets, the Commission clearly outlines that yearly earnings for women can be 41 percent lower than for men. In the long run, this gap translates into pensions 39-percent lower for women than for men in the EU.

A career of token girl? Thanks, but no thanks.

There is more to women in the workplace, though. We have seen usual complaints that women are severely underrepresented in boards and C-level positions:

Management and supervisory positions are overwhelmingly held by men. Within each sector men are more often promoted than women, and paid better as a consequence. This trend culminates at the very top, where amongst CEOs less than 4% are women.

I am a killjoy perhaps, but the surge to introduce quotas is not a solution. Instead, it is a remarkable case of positive discrimination. How would I know that I am hired for my skills and not because HR had to check a box on ‘equality’? And imagine the ambiance at work: perhaps not outright hazing but how would colleagues trust my competencies if they suspect that I owe my position to some quota rule?

These are somewhat rhetoric questions, aren’t they. An extensive body of research has documented the what psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam have named the ‘glass cliff’. The idiom indicates that women are more likely to be put into leadership roles under risky and precarious circumstances. Thus for ex., an analysis of CEO transitions among Fortune 500 companies spanning a fifteen-year period showed that it was more likely for white women, as well as men and women of colour, to be promoted to CEO when companies were performing poorly.

Unsurprisingly, women’s odds of failure are often higher when being the CEO of a firm in trouble. Failure means undermined career prospects. But it also comforts the stereotype that men are better leaders anyway. So, back to step one, rinse and repeat.

Minorities get the same type of punishment. Research indicates that in the Conservative party in the UK, blacks, and other ethnic minorities also get selected to compete for harder-to-win seats than are their white-skinned counterparts.

It’s not a women’s problem. It’s a work problem, dummy.

Despite these known issues, solutions still do not rain on us. The European Commission roadmap on addressing “the challenges of work-life balance faced by working families” still fails to include paternity leave for example. And this happens after the Commission withdrew the stalled maternity leave proposal back in July. Not a big deal: said proposal had only been stuck in the legislative process since 2008.

Other recommendations from the Commission’s roadmap are lukewarm. I do fear that today’s policy-makers are reinventing the flat tire rather than the wheel. For ex., unpaid work is a hurdle, obviously. Figures in both the EU and the US show that women continue to contribute much more to household tasks and childcare than men do (yes, household is work):

Source: The European Commission summary fact sheet.

In its roadmap, the Commission only offers to invite Member States to consider smoothening work conditions to enable a better work-life balance. In plain English, this means that, if a directive came out of the roadmap, it will most likely be as useless as the aforementioned anti-discrimination rules.

Sensitive policies rather than recommendations are important to enforce effective measures. I can’t cite the number of pieces I have read where testimonials abund from women acknowledging that, for having it all, you need to be either rich or superhuman or be married to a well-off partner. And yes, it is a workplace problem. Whatever policies are composed, they do require addressing the retaliation when protesting discrimination as well as taking into account the real barriers and flaws we face. ‘You are not committed enough’ or ‘It is feasible if you hold on having children or don’t have them at all’ are not real barriers and flaws. These are plain sexist stereotypes, thank you very much.

It is 2015, and we are still struggling to get to a standard of life that Bulgaria, a small country from Eastern Europe, was already enjoying in the 1980s:

Members of the official U.S. delegations to these UN conferences report being embarrassed that women in the East European countries enjoyed legal rights for which their counterparts in the United States were still struggling. Such realizations may have spurred women’s activism in the West, and accelerated the pace of change. In some respects, though, the United States is still behind Bulgaria of the 1980s. Today, for instance, all countries around the world legally guarantee some form of paid maternity leave, with the four notable exceptions: Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Liberia, and the United States.

The Commission has suggested several instruments that can be used to addressed equality gaps. Would you be willing to help me explore their implementation? And for anyone familiar with company-specific/institution-specific policies: please comment or drop me a line to let me know!

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