Where would we be without the gender pay gap? With girls outperforming boys at school, outnumbering male students at university, and women experiencing no more practical hindrances than men to achieving anything they want in life, feminists have been forced to shift their attention to the more nebulous cultural sphere in order to prove that women remain victims of a patriarchal conspiracy. Often played out in the messy virtual world, feminism has been reduced to a question of lifestyle choice and personal identity, with the supporters of the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen hysterically pitched against those in the #WomenAgainstFeminism camp. So, apparent evidence that women really are disadvantaged in a way that can be counted and measured, through the pay gap, is greeted with an almost audible sigh of relief.
Whatever people’s views on stay-at-home mothers, glamour models or body hair, it seems there is one thing on which all can agree: men being paid more than women is a very bad thing indeed. The fact that no one today seriously argues that men should earn more for doing the same work is no impediment to politicians, feminists, academics, celebrities and anyone who has ever been near a workplace or a woman decrying this financial injustice. The gender pay gap provides a useful opportunity for everyone to demonstrate their feminist credentials and to show that women still experience institutionalised sexism. Indeed, such is the desire for the gender pay gap to exist that the facts have been ignored in the pursuit of narrative consensus.
Last week in the UK, headlines declared that women in London earn 13 per cent less than men and that the pay gap is widening. Not only do such claims not stand up to scrutiny – even worse, they actually hide a far more positive story about women’s pay. A recently published report from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport examined changes in median hourly earnings over time and showed that since 1997 the gender pay gap has shrunk. Men have seen their pay increase by 57.4 per cent over this period, while women’s wages grew by 74.5 per cent. For women up to the age of 40, median hourly earnings rose faster than for people in any other group, increasing by 81.7 per cent, and as a result the pay gap for this cohort went down from 25.1 per cent to 12 per cent.
This welcome levelling-off in pay differentials has no doubt been driven by many factors, including equalities legislation, fear of litigation, women delaying having babies until later in life, and an increase in female graduates taking better-paid professional jobs. Unsurprisingly, all these factors combined mean that London has the lowest pay gap of anywhere in the UK. Crudely put, women in London get paid 86.8p for every £1 earned by men; in comparison, women from the whole of the UK earn nearly 20 per cent less than men each hour.
But the above suggests that, for all the shrinkage of the pay gap, it is still the case that women are hard done by in comparison with men. Certainly, these headline-grabbing statistics about a smaller but still existing pay gap are used by politicians and campaigners in their handwringing over the plight of women and girls today. However, what is less well known is that such statistics are arrived at by conflating the earnings of women of all ages, all occupations, and those in part-time and full-time work. The reality is that for people aged under 40 and working full-time, the gender pay gap is around zero; since 2009 women aged 22 to 29 have actually earned more than men. Furthermore, evidence shows that as the pay gap falls first for younger people, this smaller differential sticks with each generational cohort as they age. So, if current trends continue, the pay gap should be a thing of the past in the space of some 20 years.