Fiddling with the stats won't solve gender pay-gap issues
Tackling pay inequality grabs the headlines, but it may be the wrong way to fight for equality, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
It's been six months since the row about the gap between male and female pay at the BBC first hit the headlines, and four months since Sharon Ni Bheolain revealed that she was being paid substantially less than her old Six One News co-host Bryan Dobson.
The Government's response has finally arrived in the shape of… a symposium.
It took place last week in Dublin's Iveagh House, and gathered together policy makers, trade unionists, business leaders, academics and others.
The idea was to discuss various proposals to reduce the gap in Ireland, which currently stands at 14pc, lower than in most other European countries, but still, participants all agreed, too high.
What followed was lots of talking, because there's nothing that academics and policy makers love more.
On the table were various suggestions made since the period of public consultation on the issue began last August.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys also set out some of their own proposals to tackle the problem - but realistically, what can the Government do? The gender pay gap, while beloved of slogan writers, is not as straightforward as it looks.
The gap is merely a crude comparison between the average pay of men and the average pay of women, whether that's within a particular company, industry, or country.
This is what leads to startling, but misleading, statistics about the average woman earning only so many cents to each euro that the average man takes home, or headlines declaring a particular day on the calendar as the moment when women supposedly start working for free.
These markers are crude averages, and obviously do not take account of the different roles men and women play in the workplace.
So, if there are lots of women in one company in low-skilled, low-paying jobs, and lots of men in senior level, then the pay gap will look correspondingly high, even if everyone who does the same job is paid the same regardless of gender.
There's also the long- standing effect of women choosing to take longer out of work to have children, meaning they tend to fall behind on the pay scale compared to men who stay in work and continue to rise through the ranks.
Which is not to say that the Government should do nothing to tackle pay inequality. Quite the opposite. There is a real problem out there.
The focus should be on identifying what the problem is, and then narrowing in on the solutions - whereas it seems that politicians, in Ireland as elsewhere, are, in their well-meaning, muddling way, trying to do it the wrong way round.
Ministers Flanagan and Humphreys identified certain changes which they said might help, such as increased parental leave and greater investment in childcare - but it's not immediately obvious why that would close the pay gap.
On the surface, Germany's childcare arrangements look exemplary. Parents can sue the Government for lost wages if they can't find a place for their child in nursery, and there's plenty of help available to ease the burden on parents. Yet the gender pay gap is still comparatively high.
All the measures suggested by the two ministers at last week's symposium would undoubtedly make life easier for working mothers, and should be welcomed on that basis alone, along with legislation requiring companies to be more open about salary structures so that employees can make informed decisions as to whether they're being treated equitably - but arguably the Government shouldn't be fixating on this aspect at all.
Nationally, the gender pay gap can be skewed by factors such as the number of women at home, and the number in part-time work, rendering many of the headline figures meaningless. When Charlie Flanagan says the gender pay gap has "gripped the public imagination as never before", he's referring just as much to the hold it has on the thinking of politicians, with no one really knowing if they're talking about the same thing.
A far greater barrier to inequality is the ruses companies still use to get around the legal requirement to pay men and women equally for doing the same job.
End-of-year bonuses are a notorious source of abuse, because they're largely subjective. The term "performance-related" covers a multitude of sins.
Equal pay legislation also doesn't stop companies giving different titles to male and female employees to justify paying one more than another.
That was highlighted last week by the BBC's former China editor, Carrie Gracie, who discovered that her salary lagged significantly behind that of the male US editor.
When she complained about it, she was offered a raise, but decided that to accept it would be to collude in "unlawful pay discrimination". Instead she chose to speak out, rekindling the debate about men and women being paid vastly different sums for the same job.
That inequality extends across the economy, with female managers of private companies being paid less than men running similarly sized businesses.
This happens even when the female-led enterprises are more commercially competitive, which goes against every argument that the market self-regulates to reward success. Women don't negotiate hard enough - that's the usual explanation. But research suggests women do ask for pay rises as often as their male counterparts. They just don't get them.
There are deep cultural forces at work which conspire against women, the same ones which lead to female-dominated occupations commanding lower levels of pay than male-dominated ones.
The Government can take any number of steps to ensure that this does not happen in the civil service, and already does to some extent. That's why the wage gap is smaller in the public rather than private sector.
But micromanaging every single business in the country would be an unwelcome development even if it was possible. What it could concentrate on doing instead is ensuring that paying men and women differently for like-for-like work - which is supposed to be against the law but still happens anyway - is driven out of corporate culture once and for all, whether by incentives or punishments or some combination of the two.
Obsessing over a gender pay gap which is largely symbolic does nothing to tackle all these more heinous injustices. Indeed, it obscures them.
Consider the fact that it would be possible to reduce the gender pay gap nationally simply by having more women recruited to higher levels of management, even if those women were still paid less than the men who worked alongside them. Sounds crazy, but that's statistics for you.
Government should focus on real-life problems faced by real women, rather than fiddling around with statistics.