Tackling Discrimination Head On

Kate Bell on a new study from the UK showing that discrimination may account for up to two-thirds of the wage difference between men and women.

SOURCE: Flickr/National Women’s Law Center

A woman holds a sign at a rally for fair pay in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2008.

The House of Representatives, just before its August recess, passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, aimed at strengthening current protections against wage discrimination. Now new research from the United Kingdom reveals just how important this discrimination may be in explaining the gender pay gap—possibly accounting for up to two-thirds of the difference in men’s and women’s pay.

Women in the United Kingdom earn on average 16 percent less than men for every hour they work—a significant penalty, though it falls below the 23 percent gap between women and men in the United States. Skeptics of labor market discrimination often attribute this to women’s individual choices about when, where, and whether to work. But the UK research shows that personal and job characteristics including age, job tenure, industry, occupation, region, and whether the industry has union representation can only explain about one-third of the difference between men’s and women’s pay, suggesting that discrimination is still playing a part in depressing women’s wages.

The “unexplained” differences in men’s and women’s pay in the United Kingdom have gone down by 3 percent since 1998—possibly due to a reduction in this discrimination. Since 1998, the United Kingdom has implemented a range of measures intended to promote women in the workplace, including the introduction of flexible working rights for parents with children under six, an expansion in support for childcare, and a duty placed on all public authorities to actively promote gender equality in the workplace and in services.

Plans for a new Equality Bill intend to go further, forcing public bodies to reveal what they are doing to tackle gender-based pay differentials, and using government contracting to reward companies with a positive record on tackling discrimination. Campaigners were disappointed that the bill failed to impose comprehensive equal pay audits, which would force private companies to show what they paid men and women in comparable jobs, though there are hopes the legislation may still be strengthened to do this.

What can the United States take from the experience of tackling discrimination across the Atlantic? The first step is to identify it. Similar research into the extent that direct discrimination plays a part in wage differentials would add strength to calls for action. Making sure that existing legislation gets implemented fairly would also help; the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act that failed to move forward by four votes this spring would clarify that discrimination happens each time an unequal pay check is received. States could also learn from the experience of using government contracting, and their own compensation systems, to actively promote equal pay. Only by tackling discrimination head on will women finally get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

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