Equal pay: Evening up salaries would also benefit men who are under pressure to work longer hours

It could eat into the ultra-masculine culture of some large corporations that has led to premature deaths, and absent dads

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The Independent Online

“Prepare your daughter for working life. Give her less pocket money than your son.” This slogan appeared on an Equal Opportunities Commission campaign poster 15 years ago. I keep it on my fridge to remind my son of his gender-induced entitlement.

David Cameron’s announcement last week to make companies with more than 250 employees publish their pay audits is welcome, if a tad tardy. Paying women less than their male counterparts for a job of equal value has been illegal since the 1970s but that hasn’t deterred the pernicious practice. In 2012, Birmingham council was ordered to pay more than £700m to 170 women, including cleaners and carers, for depriving them of bonuses which were awarded to employees in traditionally male jobs.

In 2005 women earned 18 per cent less than men. In 2015, the gap has widened to 20 per cent, which can reach 40 per cent at senior levels when bonuses are included. The impact of the pay gap on women is well documented. It is particularly marked when women become mothers. Decisions about which parent stays at home are usually driven by pay so it’s no surprise that it is predominately women who relinquish their jobs. 

However, the far-reaching societal consequences of the pay gap largely go unreported. It creates a vicious circle whereby men, as primary bread winners, are under increased pressure to work ever longer hours in order to ingratiate themselves with the boss. Companies exploit this vulnerability. There is a myth, propagated by employers, that men eschew flexible working practices because they love the cut and thrust of long hours. While this is true of a minority, for the vast majority it is not.

When I carried out research for an employment consultancy on the long-hours culture, I asked men who had small children why they didn’t request flexible working arrangements (having children is no longer a requirement). All of them responded that it would be career limiting. One said he took a promotion to compensate for the loss of his (more qualified but less well-paid) wife’s income. He was promised his travel would only increase by 10 per cent. It increased by 70 per cent. He was struggling to cope with being an absentee dad and his wife was drowning as a lone mum. He was actively looking for a job elsewhere.

On a couple of occasions, while advising some of the UK’s largest organisations on discrimination and ethics, I came across coded data I wasn’t supposed to see. There were secret budgets ring-fenced for litigation in relation to discrimination. In among stats breaking down staff attrition along gender lines, I came across a column marked “deaths”. In one of the organisations there were six in the past 12 months. All of whom were men.

I was told the information was “classified” but gleaned that it related to deaths suspected to be work-related. In one global corporation an executive had committed suicide while on assignment overseas. Apparently he got extremely stressed before making presentations. Rather than ease up, his manager forced him to “man up”. Unable to cope with the stress, away from his family, the night before a presentation he threw himself off his hotel balcony.

Elsewhere an executive who worked notoriously long hours dropped dead of a heart attack one night. He was in his thirties. The corporation’s response? Invest in an on-site gym for employees to “de-stress”. It was spun by the human resources department as a fitness issue, unrelated to his being pushed by his employer to breaking point. As one HR professional put it, “Our job is to optimise employee productivity, not to babysit”. In my experience though, people are far more productive when they’re alive.

The lack of women and minorities on boards was identified as a factor in the global recession, which could have been avoided had we listened to similar warnings issued in the 2005 Higgs report (commissioned, post-Enron, to improve Britain’s corporate governance). Higgs found that a few men held multiple board positions and that many were appointed by a tap on the shoulder rather than competing in an open and fair selection process. Isn’t that positive discrimination? Yes, but as long as the beneficiary is not female or black, we don’t call it that.

Homogeneity leads to group-think, which in turn leads to bad decisions. In 2008, a male journalist blamed gender inequality for the global financial crisis. No one has heard from him since. Rumour has it he’s in witness protection and writes verses for Hallmark.

Pay transparency (with corresponding sanctions) will help break the vicious circle of inequality by encouraging women to return to work after child birth, for example, and to participate at leadership level. This would mitigate against the long-hours culture, which, despite being bad for productivity and societal wellbeing, prevails in a climate of masculinity.

It is detrimental to society and the economy to reduce fatherhood to a walk-on part while at the same time driving women out of the workforce when they become mothers. Children need fathers as well as mothers and UK plc needs women, as well as men, at the helm.