Date posted: 01/06/2021 5 min read

5 reasons why there’s a gender pay gap (and what to do about it)

If equal pay is the law, why is there still a gender pay gap? Author Catherine Fox unpacks a few of the underlying issues.

In Brief

  • Unconscious gender stereotyping underlies the persistent gender pay gap.
  • There is an assumption that women are happy to pull back on their careers to look after children.
  • Having more women in senior positions is shown to narrow the pay gap.

By Johanna Leggatt

1. Traditional gender stereotypes

Many workplaces are prey to traditional gender stereotypes, even unconsciously, that can mean women’s work is not valued as highly.

“It can mean women are not assessed in the same way as men in the workplace,” says Catherine Fox, chair of the advisory board at Women & Leadership Australia and author of Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business.

It’s often assumed that men’s careers are paramount and women should be the ones to make career sacrifices. To counter this, CEOs should not assume men want to work and women want to stay home, “...because it is not good for men either being automatically forced into that role,” notes Fox.

2. Women are often blamed for the gender pay gap

Some people argue it’s women who need to ask for a pay rise or push themselves forward in order to get ahead. But Fox says solutions should focus on organisations taking responsibility rather than placing the onus on women to be more assertive and haggle for a raise.

“Let’s not forget not all men are great negotiators, nor do they always enjoy it. But they could be fantastic people at their job, and you don’t want them underpaid either. There is no ‘gold standard’ approach for getting ahead.”

3. Too few women in senior positions

“A number of studies have shown when you have more women in senior roles, and certainly running organisations, the gender pay gap narrows substantially,” says Fox. “So this has a huge impact on the amount women are paid.”

Catherine FoxPicture: Catherine Fox. Image credit: Jeremy Piper.

“A number of studies have shown when you have more women in senior roles, and certainly running organisations, the gender pay gap narrows substantially.”
Catherine Fox

For this reason, having gender quotas for leadership roles is a good first step.

“We have quotas in government, we have a certain number of senators from certain states, but for some reason when it comes to women and power, we suddenly become allergic to them.”

4. A lack of transparency around pay

The lack of transparency about pay makes it difficult to identify concrete cases of gender pay inequity.

“That is where information sharing and tapping into whatever networks you have are really important to determine what others are being paid,” says Fox.

She recommends younger female staff approach their manager in a group to ask for a gender pay audit.

“I recommend women take a collective approach and group together if needed because you may find it’s a fertile time to bring this discussion up and that managers are listening these days.”

If you’re a senior manager, male or female, she recommends ordering a gender pay gap audit to assess equity.

5. Not implementing findings makes it difficult to bridge the gap

Fox points out while numerous companies commission gender pay audits, the results and recommendations can easily stay on the “to-do list”.

“Not only do you need the pay audit, but then you have to implement the plan, and you have to keep checking it every single year, because the bias will creep back in,” she advises.

“And you’ve got to accept you will be paying some of the people who work for you more money from that point on.”

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