This week the medium quite literally became the message. 

It started with reports that the BBC seems to have a preference for paying male presenters more than female presenters.

The topic then swam across the Irish Sea and the controversy moved on to RTÉ. The question being asked is entirely legitimate — why do female presenters not get paid as much as their male counterparts?

It’s easy to forget the extent to which women were prejudiced in the workplace up until quite recently.

A woman civil servant would have to quit her job when she got married as recently as the 1960s. We have moved on thankfully from those extremes. But is there still a problem in the treatment of women workers compared to their male counterparts?

One of the unsung benefits of the EU is its capacity to monitor and report. And sure enough, it keeps an eye on the pay differential between the sexes. On average, according to Eurostat, women’s gross hourly earnings were 16.3 % below those of men in 2015.

The good news here is that we seem to be better than many of our EU neighbours at wage equality. At around 14%, we come in under the EU average discrepancy, and significantly better than countries like Germany, the UK and Austria. For once, we even do better than Nordic models of good public policy like the Danes. However, the EU only measures the average pay differential between the sexes. The figures don’t tackle the issue of earning the same wage for the same work.

Some jurisdictions are turning to behavioural techniques. In the UK, employers over a certain size must publish the wage differential (if any) between males and females on their own website and on a government-maintained register.

In this country, the 2016 Programme for Partnership Government undertakes to do something similar.

Listed under the section entitled Empowering Women is a promise to promote wage transparency by requiring companies of 50 and more employees to complete a wage survey.

The Labour Party is currently promoting a bill to similar effect via the Seanad. Given the glacial progress of legislation through the current Oireachtas, appropriate legislation to fulfil the Government promise mightn’t happen anytime soon.

Public naming and shaming is, undoubtedly, a sanction. It has been used by the Revenue Commissioners for years to punish tax defaulters.

Publication is now being mooted by both the OECD and the EU to curb tax planning of multinationals.

Behavioural change is important because wage discrimination is problematic to legislate against directly. There can be very good commercial reasons for wishing to pay a bigger wage to one employee over another, like skills or know-how retention. Gender, however portrayed, is not the determining factor in many cases.

Nevertheless, as an agent of behavioural change, there is a role for a public register of gender wage gaps. To be effective, it must be proportionate by not creating yet another burden particularly for small business, while being comprehensive.

The risk with any kind of register is that it could normalise poor wage practice. That’s no longer acceptable as an excuse.

Brian Keegan is director of public policy and tax at Chartered Accountants Ireland


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