Isn't it time to fix the pay gap?

DEBORAH RUSSELL
Last updated 05:00 29/11/2011
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GET IT RIGHT: It's time to fix the pay gap and stop the blame.

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The gender pay gap remains stubbornly wide in New Zealand, about 10 per cent, according to the 2011 New Zealand Income Survey. That means that for every dollar that men earn, women earn 90c, after adjusting for the number of hours worked.

Common reasons given for this are women don't ask for enough pay or recognition in the first place, they lack experience because they take time out for child rearing and they have "sick days" every month.

The "sick days" reason turns out to be a canard: women do take very slightly more sick days than men, but it's only about half a day more per year on average, and certainly nothing like the 12 days a year that might be justified by the excuse.

But what about the other reasons?

It does seem to be true that women ask for less than men. Very few women negotiate higher salaries when they start a job: they just take the pay offered, whereas men are much more likely to ask for more.

Later on, women are much less likely to ask for pay rises or promotions. If only women would front up and demand higher pay, just like men, the pay gap would disappear.

But turn that on its head. What say the problem is not that women ask too little, but that men ask too much? They might be over confident about their abilities, and much more inclined to brag about whatever they do, whether it is putting paper in the photocopier or selling another widget.

Perhaps managers are rewarding men's self-hype, rather than the reality of what they may or may not do.

What about the other great excuse, that women take time out for childrearing? In theory, it is equally open for men and women to leave the workforce for a time, but in practice, it is usually women who do it, and any time out is seen as a negative. Women's pay falls behind their male colleagues' pay, because they just don't get as much experience.

But how much time do women really take out? It's often just a few years, and even then many women continue part-time work. That means that they are continuing to gain experience. The difference is that they don't repeat the experience as many times. Most work is repetitive, with the same tasks done over and over again.

Sometimes the much vaunted greater experience of men is not new experience. It's just more of the same. Instead of getting more money for more new experience, men are rewarded with higher pay simply for having spent longer learning how to do the same thing.

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What's more, non-work experience in sports seems to be valued for the way it develops leadership and determination. Juggling childcare responsibilities and work develops flexibility, multi-tasking, determination and resilience. Why is that worth less?

Too often, the way that men behave is framed as the way that everyone ought to behave. Why not fix the gender pay gap by assuming that the way that women behave is the way that everyone ought to behave, and that men's wages could be reduced to the same level as women's.

That last suggestion is not a serious one, but it does show that we are biased in the way that we think about work. Instead of thinking what might be the best way to assess and reward work, we assume that the way that work is structured and paid right now is the way that work ought to be structured and paid. The real solution to the pay equity gap is not to make women behave like men, or men to behave like women, but to engage in a serious discussion about better ways of working, and better ways of understanding and valuing all work.

Whatever the reasons for the pay gap, dismissing it as women's fault puts the blame on individual women, when it seems that the issue is much wider than that. But it's so much easier to blame individuals than fix a system-wide problem.

If each person is blamed for her own situation, then it's up to her to fix it. And that is surely much easier and cheaper for employers and government to deal with.

Deborah Russell is a Massey University lecturer. She works part-time.

- The Dominion Post

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