Why do we still tolerate sex discrimination and gender pay gaps in the workplace? Duncan Brown argues that individuals need to challenge their own stereotypes and stop turning a blind eye to everyday examples

How would you feel about paying your son less pocket money than your daughter, or giving him a richer sack of Christmas presents? So why do we tolerate such treatment at work?
Newspaper headlines of another multimillion-pound sex discrimination claim provide an appropriate backdrop to the launch this month of the Women and Work Commission’s report into the gender pay gap.
Fifty years ago my local council removed its lower pay scales for female employees. Thirty years ago the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act came into force. It’s easy to forget the progress since then in women’s employment. Outright discrimination and common assumptions that, for example, a pregnant employee would be expected to resign have been consigned to history.
In 1974, 2% of the managers in the UK were female, compared with more than a third today. We have one of the highest female employment rates in the EU and the total number of women in work has risen by a third since 1975. Women will take more than 70% of the new jobs created in London over the next decade. There are now more female than male students in higher education, and 42% of solicitors are women compared with 7% in 1975.
But progress in pay rates has been less impressive. The gender gap has been halved since 1970 yet remains stubbornly at 18% for full-time and 40% for part-time work. Some 17,000 women taking their employer to tribunal claiming sex discrimination in 2004 is hardly a striking indicator of legislative success.
The Equal Opportunities Commission has recommended a strengthening of the law, including mandatory private sector pay reviews, to publicise and close gender pay gaps. Employer bodies remain firmly opposed to further legislation and it seems likely that the WWC and the government will reject this too. Half of employers in the CIPD’s latest Reward Survey had undertaken a review, with the average gender pay gap at 7%.
The Commission’s chair, Baroness Prosser, points to the “multi-faceted and complicated problems that lead to unequal earnings”, meaning that there is “no silver bullet answer”. BT, which publishes the results of its regular equality audits, found that occupational segregation and child-caring responsibilities are two important contributory factors. The EOC research supports this, demonstrating the concentration of female employees in traditionally low-paying occupations, for example retail and personal care, and the impact on lifetime earnings of career breaks.
The government’s recent actions in
improving maternity and flexible working provisions may therefore be more influential than its legislation on equality per se.
Indeed the risk with additional legislation is highlighted in California, which recently introduced mandatory management training in preventing sexual harassment. According to Professor Deborah Rhode at Stanford Law School, the risk is that this “fosters resentment which perpetuates the sexual bias it is meant to address”.
So what are the solutions to closing the gender pay gap? The new CIPD guide on Diversity and Reward highlights many examples. Objective, openly communicated and non-discriminatory pay practices, such as robust job measurement and pay progression methods, are vital, yet not on their own are sufficient conditions for success.
Information and understanding of any gap and its causes through an equal pay review are essential. At Nationwide, reviews highlighted that starting salaries tended to be higher for men and that full-timers tended to get higher performance ratings than part-timers. These issues have been addressed through improved management training and monitoring of individuals.
Other employers are attacking wider issues. In France, Schneider Electric is training women for jobs that are currently male-dominated and helping to improve careers advice in schools. Two thirds of women in one UK study would have considered a different career with better advice.
Employers have to recognise that in an intensely competitive labour market and world economy, developing, valuing and motivating a diverse workforce with appropriate and fair rewards is a business and performance necessity.
And as individuals, we need to challenge our own behaviours and stop turning a blind eye to the inequality that goes on every day at work and in society. A study by Woolworths just before Christmas found that we spend on average £100 more on presents for boys than girls.