It doesn’t address the roots of inequality.

By Danielle J. Lindemann
April 18, 2017

The gender pay gap, long a topic of interest for researchers, has been propelled into public consciousness in recent years, with Hollywood celebrities speaking out against salary disparities and companies like Google being publicly shamed for their alleged gender discrimination.

The United Kingdom has enacted a new policy to address this continuing issue, by requiring employers to report information on gender and pay. The mandated reporting will apply only to companies with 250 or more employees (though smaller companies may voluntarily report), and will, all told, cover over 15 million employees working for about 9,000 distinct employers. The plan requires these employers to submit their gender and pay information to the government and to publish it on their company websites, all within the next year. While this compulsory transparency is a positive development, we should be wary of celebrating it as a panacea for gender inequality in the workplace.

The roots of the gender gap in pay are multiple and nuanced. The disparity is not simply a company-level predicament, but is symptomatic of a broader issue with the way we think about men, women, and gender. Consequently, no singular policy or program will be sufficient to address this social problem. Looking at the gender pay gap within companies, for instance, does not address occupational sex segregation by type of company—for instance, the fact that men are more likely than women to funnel into fields such as engineering and technology. It’s not just that men more often make the choice to work in these types of higher-paying industries; rather, male-dominated industries pay more because they contain mostly men. Studies have shown that, as women enter into a field, the pay begins to drop. Nor does such a policy address fundamental, cultural differences in the way young boys and girls are socialized to think about their capacities and their roles in the world—differences that translate into disparate occupational outcomes.

On the other hand, the policy might help to address other sources of gender inequality in the workplace, such as overt discrimination. It also might help to offset differences in the ways employers perceive male and female employees who advocate for themselves. One experimental study, for instance, found that participants penalized female candidates more than males for negotiating for higher compensation. While Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg advises women in the workplace to “lean in,” research like this suggests that, in doing so, they currently risk bumping their noses against institutionalized sexism.

Still, this policy in an imperfect salve for the wounds of institutional sexism. The mandated reporting would only cover about half of the UK’s working population. It also only asks companies to report gender-related statistics. Thus, it does not address other forms of discrimination—for instance, by religion, sexuality, or race—or how those might intersect with gender inequalities. Data from the Pew Research Center, for instance, reflect “large” differences in pay by gender and racial category in the U.S.

It is also important to note that mandated reporting will not necessarily prompt these companies to rethink their policies. Indeed, faced with accusations from the U.S. Department of Labor that the company engages in “systematic compensation disparities against women,” Google has doubled down, indicating that its own analysis of its compensation procedures “gives us confidence that there is no gender pay gap at Google.” On the other hand, being required to publish their numbers might indeed prompt some employers to confront equity issues where they exist. The impact of the policy at the company level remains to be seen.

There are also some potential concerns about the procedures for reporting these data. For example, as women are more likely than men to be part-time workers, good estimates of the gender pay gap generally take into account number of hours worked. Under this new policy, while employers are required to record whether their workers are full or part time, the mandated reporting does not seem to ask companies to control for hours when they report their pay gap numbers. Potential deficiencies in reporting practices would provide ammunition to those who are invested in claiming that the gender pay gap is a “myth.”

Yet the gap is not a myth. Data from the U.S. Census indicate that, in 2015, women working full time in the U.S. were paid just 80% of what men earned. Indeed, this 20% gap is actually more pronounced than the UK’s, which is now at a “record low” of 18.1%. When it comes to gender in the workplace, the U.S. lags behind other nations in other ways as well. Looking across 41 developed countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has observed that the U.S. is the only one not to offer paid maternity leave. In addition, taking into account the fact that sick leave can often be used to care for ailing family members, and that a disproportionate burden falls on women as caretakers (for children, the elderly, and the disabled), access to such leave is very much a gender equity issue as well. Yet the U.S. is the only one of 22 “rich countries” that fails to guarantee, at the federal level, some form of paid sick leave to its workers.

While Britain’s new plan may not stretch sufficiently as a band aid for workplace inequality, it is important both as a policy measure that may have some impact and as a symbolic gesture of the country’s commitment to issues of gender. America might learn from the UK’s plan, though the U.S. should also turn its focus to these other areas where it is struggling to catch up with its peers.

Danielle J. Lindemann is an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University.

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