Pay men less or women more? The fight for equal pay

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

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.


  • Greg says:

    The answer is that the employers can approach this any way they want and upset the Steve’s of the world (who are just blue collar workers trying to make a buck) and have lots of Steve’s quit and find new jobs (since this will just be a game of whack-a-mole) or women can start targeting the leadership of certain companies to take hits or face boycotts until they help all their workers. Rather than pit Steve against Anna, we need more Steve and Anna against Nigel. Steve needs to look at Anna as an ally rather than a competitor, otherwise Nigel will keep all the real pay to himself and keep Steve and Anna fighting over the pittances. Men may need to make less, but let’s focus on WHICH men.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I see what you mean, and naturally I’d agree with you that it’s going to be better for everyone if those who are already earning *huge amounts* can take pay cuts to pay workers lower down (or, in the case of Tesco, it’s potentially going to be shareholders who will lose out on profits etc). But the fact still remains that either Steve or Anna’s salary needs to change, and in the short term there will be a lot of angry Steves. I totally agree that it’d be nice if Steve could see that this isn’t a ‘her or me’ issue, but for this post I kind of wanted to focus on explaining how Steve won’t actually be getting any *less* in the long run, because it seems to me this is the main bone of contention with guys when I talk to them about it.

      In the long term I’d like to see far more diversity at the top of the org as well as equal pay throughout it though, so I’m totally with you on the broad point.

      • G says:

        One of the things I don’t think helps is companies having totally opaque pay structures for their employees. The private company in which I work puts our jobs into levels or bands, but the upper and lower pay limits for those bands are not visible to us and pay increases are set by your manager privately each year. This means that whilst I know most of my colleagues are on the same job-grade as me, I have literally no idea where I fall and where they fall in terms of who gets paid the most.

        Consequently Steve at my work has no idea that Anna is paid less (unless they speak privately about relative pay, which a lot of employees are not comfortable with), and then feels aggrieved or attacked when the subject is brought up as he feels he has worked for and earned his pay rises. If the pay structure was more open, he may realise he was being paid more than another employee for the same job from the start/over a period of time, and I think perhaps he’d feel differently and the situation might be a bit more Anna and Steve vs Management, rather than Steve vs Anna because he feels like he’s had something taken away.

  • Valery North says:

    My immediate thought is that talking about reducing the male salary works fine when talking about a comfortable salary like £34k pa. If you’re talking about an hourly wage of £7.50 (and female colleague earning £6.80 respectively) then it’s going to look a bit different, simply because the guy earning £34k pa can probably make some lifestyle adjustments to absorb the cost – there is going to be disposable income after the essentials of life. But the hourly wage is already not really enough to live on for the man earning it (never mind the extra costs his female colleague has to absorb on less!) and really, they both need a pay rise – it’s fair that hers should be increased by more, to match his!

    I feel as though solution to closing the pay gap should very much be focussed on enforcing a proper basic living wage (I forget what the figure campaigners are currently asking for – something above £10 ph I believe) and if that cuts into the top end, then maybe the men who have benefited from the base workers’ labour most could take the biggest hit to even it out at that end of the pay scale.

    Of course, if they still want to pay men more for the same job, they can increase their wage over and above the basic wage, and eat even deeper into their profits in the name of gendered inequality…

    • Girl on the net says:

      Yep, I’m with you – I think that a living wage for everyone is a basic standard that should be met regardless of gender. The problem comes, though, when you give everyone a living wage and add extra bonuses on top for certain workers, which I think is a problem that could easily still arise if the only criteria was ‘living wage’ rather than ‘living wage + equal pay’ – but yes I think we’re probably on the same page here!

  • Luv Bunny says:

    At the end of the day, service industries like care, retail, hospitality and catering are lower-salaried regardless of gender. As Valery rightly says, there should be a proper basic living wage, that reflects the everyday costs and inflation rises that regular ‘working-class’ have to meet in order to have a reasonably comfortable standard of living. Until this happens, there will continue not to be just gender inequality, but also ‘class’ inequality.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “At the end of the day, service industries like care, retail, hospitality and catering are lower-salaried regardless of gender.” They demonstrably aren’t though, as the Birmingham case shows: there is gendered pay inequality even in similar very low paid roles.

  • Gio says:

    I really don’t understand why people think men will get paid less if women’s salaries are equalized, they wont. However the one mistake I feel people make when debating this topic is the HUGE difference in how people are paid and at what level, profession to profession. The wage gap is largely noticeable in media professions like actors, news anchors, etc. There pay is based demand and earning potential based on advertiser draw etc. Women have notoriously been under paid there JUST because they are women because the employer can pretty much decide what he wants to pay them. Those are also the one’s talked about most in the media. That is an easy fix, they have the money and agents and women can demand more when they negotiate their contract.

    Same can be said in the corporate realm of upper management. Every company is different, and VPs, Directors, and CEOs are head hunted and salaries are negotiated. There women are, most often than not, offered less than a comparable male counterpart. Not all salaries are created equal in this career type, even between male VPs and CEOs. I feel stronger negotiating, ,visibility, and demanding to be in the average pay for the males in that role would help equalize.

    Once you get below this level into middle management, skilled labor, and entry level positions there are typically minimum wages or average wages for those position. Asking during an interview what the average employee makes and shooting for that or higher would also help. Many people don’t realize that while there is not a lot of negotiating power at those levels, it can be noted and asked for a pay you are comfortable with and straight out asking for transparency in that company’s pay structure. Other than that, most raises are based on performance metrics which are color and sex blind. If they aren’t, don’t accept the first raise offer and don’t be afraid to ask for more.

    In closing I don’t feel anyone needs to be paid less for there to be pay equality. Wage secrecy and unbalanced pay for similar work has always existed even for men, employers just took huge advantage and took it to another level with women. I feel this is an easier fix in society than most are if people aren’t afraid to ask from the start about salary equality.

    • Girl on the net says:

      ” women can demand more when they negotiate their contract.”

      “stronger negotiating, ,visibility, and demanding to be in the average pay for the males in that role would help equalize.”

      WOMEN: Just ask for more money.

      I’m sorry but if this is your solution you haven’t understood the problem.

      “I feel this is an easier fix in society than most are if people aren’t afraid to ask from the start about salary equality”

      This is exactly – *exactly* – what Carrie Gracie asked for. And then fought for. Repeatedly. She still has not been granted it. Do you have any other suggestions?

      • SweetTheSting says:

        “Other than that, most raises are based on performance metrics which are color and sex blind”

        Oh. I. Wish. That. Was. True.

        Unconscious bias, anyone?

        • Skunk says:

          Isn’t this the issue being discussed with #TimesUp??

          Industry leaders suggest that wage inequality is reflective of a meritocracy, that men get paid more because they’re just better at their jobs, that women don’t “lean in” enough. Instead of engaging honestly with the issue of wage inequality there’s lots of hand-wringing and the suggestion that women just aren’t as good at their jobs as men.

          Interesting that an ENTIRE GENDER, representing 51% of the populace, are just a bit shit at their chosen careers. Even the outliers, the women who ARE good at their jobs, still don’t make as much as their male counterparts. It’s almost as though there’s systemic discrimination at work…

      • Lurpak says:

        I think Hollywood shows how deep the biases run.

        If star actresses – who can hire the toughest macho-ist bastard agents, incentivised with a %age, – get screwed in negotiations what hope does anyone else have?

  • New to this says:

    As usual you handle this difficult topic really well, but I’m not sure I agree with your assessment on why Steve is already ahead (I’m an Anna FYI :)).

    I think this idea of reframing the pay disparity as one party being overpaid for a period of time is a neat and novel take on the issue, but I can’t see it working because generally people’s salaries increase over time, and as they move company or role. For the most part people view their salary as a reflection of their skills and experience and flexible only in terms of increasing. I don’t think people generally view themselves as “lucky” to be paid a certain amount, so the suggestion that their “current value” is not accurate causes real consternation. While salary decreases do happen as part of restructuring etc. this is fairly rare and I’d suggest people only accept it as the alternative is no job at all.

    So I don’t think we could really convince anyone that at 34k (for example) they have been overpaid and now things are being evened out… It would be nice to think that the thought occasionally occurs to the Phillip Greens of this world, but I suspect not. I appreciate it sounds like I’m saying, this won’t fly so we can’t do it, but actually my long winded point is that I think the only option is to increase the salaries of the underpaid so they are at parity.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Totally see what you’re saying, and I think I agree. In an ideal world I’d always go for raising the lowest pay. My main reason for making that argument is because the point is often made that it’s too expensive to raise women’s wages, but yes absolutely – if the option is there to do that, that’s what I’d want
      (Plus back pay =)

  • FarmerDan says:

    It’s already happening in Australia and the US (don’t know about the UK) but not quite in the way you think. In many parts of the workforce men in permanent full time jobs with good pay and conditions are being replaced by women who prefer part time work and are prepared to accept lower wages and less security.

    That’s how capitalism works, especially in this increasingly brutal age; bosses have to cut costs or lose their own jobs.

    The unfortunate outcome of this is that men of working age in many western countries are now more likely to die of suicide than almost any other cause.

    I wonder where this is taking us …

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    I don’t have much to add here, but just wanted to say thanks for writing posts like this. I imagine you must get a fair amount of complaints every time so you do a blog on ‘unsexy’ topics like sex discrimination, so please remember that many of us like to read these blogs just as much as the sexy ones.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you SCS – that means a lot and it’s really kind of you to say. Commenters like you keep me writing full stop – no matter what the type of post =)

    • Phillip says:

      Absolutely! I think that GOTN is very sexy when she wears those big boots and throws rocks!

  • Phillip says:

    Equal pay for equal work is great. Especially if it is actually enough to live on. Disneyland hires the ‘help’ that keeps everyone happy and every spec of trash picked up for about $14 an hour. The CEO makes about $36,000,000 a year when all the bonuses and perks are added in. Those who MUST smile or lose their jobs down in the Park are often living in their cars. Is it really “The Happiest Place On Earth”? I would say not.

    Here in the US we have no medical care, dental care or optical care. No rent control or guaranteed anything. When people act out about the awful state of affairs we simply put them in prison. We spend a humongous amount on war. More than half the national budget. Ten percent of the wealthy have 90% of everything. There is no limit on how much the haves can charge the have nots for the necessities of life. Something really bad is just around the corner.

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