It’s odd for someone like me, who has been saying for a long time that feminism won’t harm men, to have to explain that feminism means some men might have to be paid less in the future. But that’s exactly what I’m going to say, and what’s more I need to point out that it doesn’t actually mean you will have ‘less’ than women. Let’s talk about the BBC, Birmingham council, and Tesco: all places which have been subject to criticism over unequal pay.
BBC, equal pay and Carrie Gracie
In case you’ve missed the BBC equal pay row, here’s a brief summary:
Four years ago, the BBC urged Carrie Gracie to apply for the role of BBC China editor. An experienced journalist, fluent in Mandarin, it’s not surprising that they thought she would be a good fit for the job. She accepted the job on the condition that she receive pay that was equal to her male counterparts.
In July this year, when salaries of high-earners at the BBC were published, Carrie learned that her pay was not equal to that of the men: she was paid around 50% less than two male editors in equivalent roles. She tried to negotiate with management, arguing that this wasn’t just a case of a ‘gender pay gap’, but pay discrimination (which is illegal).
The BBC offered her a pay rise, which increased but crucially did not equalise her salary. She was still paid less than the men, and therefore her simple request – equal pay for equal work – had still not been met. Carrie has now quit as China editor and is back in the BBC newsroom. Again she’s stressed that all she expects is to be paid the same as men working in the same role.
You can read Carrie’s full account here. There’s been a lot of debate about it since her initial resignation, including many women at the BBC standing in support, John Humphrys being a massive dick, and now some people are calling for outside intervention because the Beeb can’t be trusted (and to be honest, I find it tricky to see how they could be trusted on this).
But this is a thorny issue, and I can understand a little why men who are paid substantially more than their female colleagues are going to be pretty annoyed. Because they know, as we all do, that if we want to achieve equal pay for women, at a certain point we’re probably going to have to pay men less.
Couldn’t we just give women lots more money?
The ideal solution to the Carrie Gracie pay row is, of course, to pay her an equal salary. Men don’t lose out, women just get more cash. More broadly, we need to audit companies to ascertain who is being underpaid, and then ideally raise their salaries and give them a hefty bonus to cover all that back pay that they weren’t receiving for years while their counterparts were being paid more.
If we had a giant pile of money, that’d be the right thing to do, right?
And in fact, that’s pretty much what happened when a group of mostly female staff took Birmingham City Council to court over pay discrimination. The claimants were mostly cooks, cleaners and care staff who had been graded at the same scale as refuse collectors, but were paid substantially less than their same-pay-grade colleagues. The more traditionally ‘male’ roles were eligible for bonuses of up to 160% of their basic pay, while the ‘female’ roles were excluded. This meant a drastic difference in the amount of take-home pay:
“In one year a refuse collector took home £51,000, while women on the same pay grade received less than £12,000.”
There was no difference in pay grade: the only difference was in bonuses, which refuse collectors (mostly men) were eligible for and not cleaners/cooks/care staff (mostly women). The solution – as ruled by the court – was that the underpaid workers should be awarded back pay.
[Insert fireworks/popping champagne/cheering crowd gif here]
I love the Birmingham story, because it’s not just a good example of collective action driving change, it also gives a really neat answer to the question ‘but don’t men and women do different work?’ The answer is ‘sometimes, yes’, because society still labels certain jobs as ‘for boys’ and others ‘for girls.’ And it’s important to shatter the assumptions that tell people women should be cleaners and men should be refuse collectors, but in the meantime wouldn’t it be nice if women didn’t continue to get paid significantly less than their male colleagues for doing a job which is deemed equal by their employer?
When I talked about this on Twitter, some random people tried to argue with me about the relative skills and difficulties involved in cleaning/cooking/care work versus refuse collection. I won’t even bother to go into it here, because there is no need for anyone to give a single shiny fuck: the employer (Birmingham City Council) had graded those jobs the same. The employer had made that decision. The employer had then offered wildly different salaries. The employer was in the wrong.
Tesco shop workers versus warehouse
This isn’t the only example of this kind of case either – at the moment the supermarket Tesco is facing calls to give back pay to thousands of shop-floor workers, after paying them significantly less than their colleagues who work in warehouses. Warehouses tend to employ more men, shops tend to employ more women. Warehouse staff get up to £11 per hour, shop staff get around £8 per hour.
And we can’t really have arguments about the relative difficulty of shop-floor work versus warehouse work here either: they’re slightly different (one requires customer service skills, the other might require more strenuous physical work), but you really have to go some to make the case that there’s a £3-an-hour (nearly 30%!) difference. What’s more, the people who are so keen to delve into the nitty-gritty detail of each job rarely want to examine the important fact that whenever there’s a discrepancy in labour, it’s always the more ‘male’ roles that they deign more difficult or challenging. That’s the problem at the heart of the Birmingham and Tesco debates, and I hope that the courts rule the same way in the Tesco case as they did with Birmingham council.
Back pay: are there any two words more beautiful and fitting to end this section with?
Because here’s the boring bottom line: if the law says that you have to pay people equally regardless of gender, then at some point you’re either going to have to pay women more or pay men less. Those are the two options.
BBC pay and back pay for women
Now, in my heart I would love for every company to be required by law to perform a pay audit – not just across gender lines, but on every other axis on which people are subject to pay discrimination – and then be ordered to issue back pay to the employees who have received discriminatory wages over the years. I think it’s unlikely that will happen, but a girl can dream, and in the meantime there are some heroic groups of underpaid workers taking collective action to try and redress the balance.
But if you hate the idea of back pay, or think it’s too expensive, then we might have to explore another option. We can’t, after all, just keep on paying some people more than others for the same work. Either we have to raise the wages of those who’ve been discriminated against (expensive!) or we have to lower the wages of those who’ve been overpaid (controversial!).
So let’s look at option two: lowering men’s wages. Yes, it’s massively controversial to take money away from men. For Carrie Gracie’s counterpart to walk into the office one Monday and be told ‘sorry, we’re cutting your pay by X% and giving the excess to Carrie Gracie.’ I’d imagine that he would be pretty annoyed, and there’d be consternation in the newsroom. He might ask his bosses why he has to receive less money, because it’s not like he got X% less good at his job than he was the week before. It may seem to him like he’s suddenly getting less, as if this ‘feminism’ which so frequently argues that it will benefit men is actually now destroying his life.
If you feel like that, men who are being overpaid, I’d like you to join me for a quick maths lesson.
Let’s assume Anna has been with an accountancy firm for five years, on a salary of £30,000 per year. Her male colleague, Steve, has been there for roughly the same time, on a salary of £34,0000 per year. One morning, they are both called into HR and told that their salaries will be adjusted so that they are being paid equally for their work, because they do exactly the same job. Anna and Steve are both now paid £32,000. Steve is angry. Steve thinks this is very unfair.
However, no matter how unfair it feels, Steve is still £20,000 better off than Anna. Over the last five years he’s earned £170,000 as opposed to Anna’s £150,000. Even after the salary adjustment, he will still be quids in – in five years’ time, their relative totals will be £330,000 (Steve) and £310,000 (Anna). Steve is annoyed, and yet he is still the winner in this deal. An actually fair way to solve this pay disparity would be to either give Anna a back-pay bonus, or pay the two unequal wages – Anna on £34,000, Steve on £30,000, for five years to make up the difference. Few people are actually suggesting we do either of these two things. Most people – including Carrie Gracie – are simply suggesting that we equalise pay.
Men are annoyed because in the short term it will seem like they get less money, even though in the long term they will still be up on the deal. If you’ve spent every year of your life being given more than the person next to you, when you are suddenly told you’ll get the same, it feels like something’s being taken away. But that thing wasn’t yours to begin with, and yet you’ve still had it, for ages. You’ve effectively been given a ‘free’ bonus for every single year you’ve been working.
If you’re an angry dude getting ready to comment telling me that this is a disgrace and it would absolutely NEVER happen to women, please hold your horses. It already has.
UK state pension age for women
Back in the day, women in the UK used to receive their state pension at the age of 60, while men received it at the age of 65. Essentially men would have to work for 5 years longer than women in order to get their benefits.
The amount of state pension received varies each year, but in 2011 when the state pension act was passed, the basic state pension for a single person was around £5,000. So effectively women would receive £25,000 more than men (£5k for each year they’d be getting their pension early). Seems a bit unfair, right? Well, the government changed it. Using a phased approach, they increased the state pension age for women so that it will be in line with the age for men, and they’re now increasing the pension age for both genders so eventually none of us will get a pension until we’re 68, because people are living longer these days.
It’s not exactly the same as the pay issue, but here’s a tangible example of women getting more money than men, and then having that money being taken away on the grounds that it isn’t fair. Are women pissed off? Too right: for years they’ve planned to retire at 60, and now they’re being told they probably have to work for longer. It’s frustrating for some, and terrifying for others. It’s a horrible shock.
And yet, it is happening. And it’s happening before we’ve taken decisive action on pay inequality while people are still in work. Anna is still getting paid less than Steve for the same work, and now she’ll have to continue doing that work for five years longer than she previously thought. It sucks for Anna, but it’s happening.
The point of talking about pensions is simply to illustrate that ‘taking money away from people’ isn’t such a bold and controversial move when it’s women who will lose out: we’ve already done it. Yet when we’re talking about taking money away from men, suddenly it’s very controversial – or even frequently billed as an outright impossible problem. But the answer is really clear: if we won’t pay women more, we need to pay men less. They will still be significantly better off, thanks to having been paid more for years, but at the very least we can stop making that cumulative lifetime pay gap even wider.
There’s no quick-fix that will solve gendered pay discrimination overnight. As with most fights against systemic inequality, it will take time, it will cost money, and it will annoy loads and loads of people. But it is necessary if we actually want to achieve pay equality. When I argue with dudes on the internet about feminism, often they’ll point out that feminism has basically won now and women are equal under the law. But this is what equality under the law looks like when that law is not properly enforced: it looks like a lot of women being paid less than men. It means people like Carrie Gracie having to take pay disputes public because the management are simply not listening when they ask for equal treatment. It means subtle discrimination between jobs that are assumed to be ‘male’ or ‘female’, and eventual massive lawsuits to try and redress the balance.
The existence of pay inequality is a fact. The only question is what we’re going to do about it.