It’s not just bridging the gender gap, it’s about pay transparency

Bryan Dobson is paid between €60,000 and €80,000 more than his co-presenter Sharon Ni Bheoláin.

It’s part of a policy called jantelagen; a foundational belief that no citizen is better than another, wirtes Mary Morrisy

On current projections it will take 81 years for the world to close the gender pay gap completely. That’s the depressing prediction from Tara O’Neill of global recruitment agency Morgan McKinley. That’s a long time to wait.

I, for one, won’t be around to see it. But the one good effect of the recent controversy about pay rates for top female media stars is that the issue of equal pay for women has broken through into the main news agenda.

If only thanks to the law of unintended consequences.

When the BBC was forced under its new charter to publish the salary rates of its highest earners, the corporation was probably bracing itself for a public backlash on the exorbitant fees its stars are paid with the help of licence fees.

It probably didn’t expect to excite a gender equality debate on the staggering pay gap between its male and female employees.

Only one woman — Claudia Winkelman, best known for presenting Dancing with the Stars — was among the top 10, which was led by Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans earning £2.2m.

Forty-two women employed at the BBC were quick to seize the opportunity to pen an open letter to the director general, demanding he act now to address the gender pay gap. (The BBC has a commitment to parity, but not until 2020.)

In a ripple effect, RTÉ promised to review its pay scales when it was revealed that on its Six One programme, Bryan Dobson is earning between €60,000-€80,000 more than co-presenter, Sharon Ni Bheoláin.

When contacted by the Sunday Independent to comment, Ms Ni Bheoláin said: “As someone who values her privacy, the very notion of sharing my salary with your newspaper is abhorrent to me. . .I do however recognise inequality and gender pay are key social issues in need of examination and so it would be cowardly for me not to comment.” (She confirmed the disparity but said the gap had narrowed since the figures were released in 2014.)

But Ni Bheoláin touched on the nub of the matter — privacy, which in the real world translates as secrecy. Pay secrecy. In many private sector companies there’s a policy of non-disclosure on salaries; sometimes these policies are written down, in other cases they’re implied. Ibec, our largest employers’ representative group, has decried calls to force disclosure of gender pay gap details as “inappropriate”.

Who was it who said information is power? As Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fáil’s communications spokesman put it: “It is in silence that a gender pay gap thrives. Silence, in fact, preserves the gap that exists.”

Because this controversy is not just about the fact that women are not paid as much as men but that most employees don’t know — and aren’t allowed to know — what their colleagues are earning.

A young woman in her 30s I know, who works for a multinational finance company in Cork, told me that she would be sacked if she asked anyone at work what they earned.

For someone like me who was active in trade unionism in the 80s and 90s, this seems a shocking reversal, a harking back to the days of the 19th century mill. But then I am constantly taken aback at how employment conditions for everyone, not just women, have deteriorated in the past decade.

In fact, many of our most basic employee rights have been eaten away at — the right to strike, for one, the right to a steady income which has been undermined by zero-hours contracts.

Sick leave and holiday pay entitlement have been all but abolished by casualisation of labour.

And this is not confined to the private sector. Universities and third-level institutions now specialise in fixed-term contracts for a great number of their newer employees, some of which demand waiving of state legislation like the Unfair Dismissals Act.

The argument against transparency on pay rates, employers would say, is that it would unleash a free-for-all, causing disharmony and resentment among workers. But there is evidence to suggest that not knowing what your colleagues earn actually causes strife.

Pay secrecy leads directly to discrimination — not just between men and women, but between colleagues. David Burkus, associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, put it like this: “When people don’t know how their pay relates to their peers, they either think that they’re being underpaid and maybe discriminated against, or worse they actually are.”

Secrecy on pay also leads to what economists call information asymmetry, Burkus says. When hiring or negotiating raises, employees are often blind, since they don’t know and can’t ask what the going rate for the work is.

In a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review Burkus cited research which showed that not only is pay transparency good for workers, it also benefits performance — and so, profits, which in our neo-con world is the bottom line.

A study conducted at the University of Berkeley California hired 2,000 people and asked them to complete two rounds of a data entry task. At the end of the first round, some of the participants were shown their own pay; others were given details of how much they had earned plus what the others were paid.

In the second round of work, those who were shown what their earnings were in relation to others performed better.

At a societal level, pay disclosure makes for a healthier financial democracy.

In Sweden, Norway and Finland, for example, not only are pay rates readily available, but every citizen’s tax return is posted online showing total income, tax paid and net worth. It’s part of a policy called jantelagen; a foundational belief that no citizen is better than another.

In fact, perhaps the only drawback in the current debate on gendered pay is that it has been sparked by privileged high earners.

Michael White, former Guardian journalist, derided the furore on Twitter claiming that “lazy columnists” (that’d be me, then) were milking the BBC pay dispute which was really about highly paid women complaining that men are paid even more.

But the fact remains that the gender gap increases the more you earn — in Ireland, for example, the gender pay gap is around 4% for the bottom 10% of earners, but for the top 10%, the figure jumps to 24.6%.

So even if the BBC and RTÉ disputes are seen by the public as petty squabbles between entitled “haves”, wouldn’t it be great if these star performers managed to keep the spotlight on pay inequality long enough for something meaningful, finally, to be done about it?

Mary Morrissy is the Associate Director of Creative Writing at UCC. Her latest book is Prosperity Drive, a novel in stories.


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