A simple guide to the gender pay gap


So many people talk about the gender pay gap, but it’s really difficult to get a clear picture of why women are paid less in comparison to men. It’s also not clear why, for example, if one man and one woman are both nurses, they get paid a different amount of money each year. Sometimes living on Earth is very weird.

I thought I’d put together a short, tangible and personally profitable guide to why this happens, with some links to trustworthy resources and reports. Hold on to your seatbelts:

Direct discrimination

  • That’s where women get paid less than men for doing exactly the same job, with the same job description, at the same company. It’s actually illegal and employees can challenge this through the legal system (you can find out more about doing this via the Citizens Advice Bureau)
  • There’s evidence that proves this really happens. A study in the US found that, for example, a female software developer earns 4% less per year than a male software developer. This doesn’t just relate to certain careers either, the research found that a female nurse earns 2% less than a male nurse per year
  • This could be due to an employer simply discriminating against gender. In the famous Betty Dukes vs. Walmart case many agreed with her claims that she had no chance of or opportunity for promotion in comparison to her male counterparts. Sadly Dukes didn’t get anywhere because the case was ‘too big’ and ‘wishy washy’. This wasn’t a Dagenham-style case with one key issue – inequality of pay – but a complex case with numerous claims that the justice system simply couldn’t handle
  • It’s also not just about immediate pay, but pay over a lifetime. A woman may be paid less because men are in work for a longer period of time (they may not leave work to look after children or take long maternity leave) and therefore would earn more in their lifetime.

Female occupations’

  • Sadly as we live in a world of stereotype and cultural conditioning, women and men typically gravitate towards different kinds of careers. Men may favour engineering, a job in the army, or an IT job, while women might be beauticians, nurses or teachers. Rather than relying on stereotypes though, we can focus on people like famous engineer Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, Serena Williams, or Fields Medal for mathematics winner Maryam Mirzakhani. Why were we never taught about mathematicians Emmy Noether or Sophie Germain in school, rather than Stephen Hawking and Isambard Kingdom Brunel?
  • The careers that women fulfil are often low paid and low valued, and as the European Commission states, this is the case because more value can be attached to responsibility for capital than to responsibility for people. No shit. We see this when social workers – those who are paid to protect children from abusive environments – or nurses – who care for the terminally ill – are underpaid and undervalued when engineers working for private companies are cherished with high salaries and glittering pension and benefit packages.

 ‘Down to choice’

  • Critics of the gender pay gap will say that as women choose their occupations and choose to have children, it’s difficult to create policies that will encourage employers to close the gap
  • That’s where the difficulty lies, legal cases can be cited as ‘wishy washy’ because there is a lot of choice involved in not asking for more money at work and having a baby
  • However just because a woman may choose a lower paid or undervalued role, this doesn’t mean that she should be paid less than a man doing the same job. It also doesn’t mean that women should be worse off because they are likely to have children
  • Closing the gap can be done and as the OECD shows countries such as New Zealand, Spain and Norway have nearly achieved this.


  • Although I hate to propel the evil rumour that women are less likely to ask for a pay rise (it’s offensive to brand all women with the ‘too nice’ stamp) women, as well as men, should be more proactive in regards to asking for a higher salary, a promotion, or other benefits
  • Research published by YouGov in 2013 has found that from a sample of 971 women who work full or part time, a minority of women (39%) say they would probably ask for a promotion or pay rise if they thought they deserved it, compared to a majority (52%) of men who say they would
  • Researchers in the US have found, however, that when employers mention that a salary is negotiable, women are more likely to haggle than men. When a salary is stated as non-negotiable, men are more likely to push the boundaries
  • Why are women afraid to challenge the system?

How can the gender gap be challenged?

  • In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 section 13 makes direct discrimination illegal and you can use this to challenge your employer
  • Taking Norway as an example, in 1993 a federally-regulated paternity leave quota was introduced, with a special 10-week quota allotted for fathers that could not be transferred to mothers. This encouraged huge shifts in attitudes from employers and the public towards gender roles and child-rearing. If you share out maternity and paternity leave, this means that women may not have to give up their careers, take more time out from work and therefore earn less money compared to men over their lifetime. Men will also feel more comfortable will taking paternity leave if it cannot be transferred to mothers, as maternity leave will not be at risk, prompting a shift in attitudes and behaviours
  • You could get rid of pay negotiations altogether, like interim CEO of Reddit Ellen Pao. This is controversial however, as pay negotiations, when approached by women, can be successful. Why would you get rid of one mechanism for flexibility?
  • We should challenge the stereotypes that stop women from entering certain careers and celebrate women who succeed in varied careers, from finance to maths to teaching
  • Earlier this month David Cameron outlined plans to increase the national living wage, which would ensure that women in those underpaid and undervalued roles are paid more. He also claims that companies with more than 250 employees will have to publish their pay gap (I can imagine a lot of resistance to this from big business!)
  • The pay gap can be immediately challenged if individuals have more open conversations between colleagues about salaries (don’t be shy – remember this isn’t against the law).

Hope this is helpful and has answered a few questions!

If you’d like to read more or campaign about the gender pay gap, visit The Fawcett Society’s website.

4 thoughts on “A simple guide to the gender pay gap

  1. This really clarifies the gender pay gap. Thank you for sharing. I am so interested to hear if you have any further thoughts on the confidence dimension. Do you have any tips for raising confidence? and do you think that this is a major factor causing the pay gap?

    1. Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting. I’ve just followed yours and it’s great to learn more about campaigns like Lean In that encourage more girls and women to be leaders. From my personal experience in a new role in the public sector I’m really encouraged to see strong, powerful women in very senior roles, although, in comparison to men, I’ve noticed many women still do themselves an injustice by publicly doubting themselves too much or degrading the importance of their work.

      Leading on from that I do definitely think that confidence is contributory factor to the pay gap. There are many really complex factors that contribute as outlined in my blog post, but confidence and empowerment really is at the source of the problem.

      I think we need to jump over many hurdles imposed by our own social and cultural conditioning as women to be able to develop greater confidence in many areas of life but especially in the workplace. As Simone de Beauvoir stated in The Second Sex, ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ We learn how to become female and pick up cues on how to behave, what kind of jobs to have, if to speak up in class. We’re also biologically maternal beings, and I think we should be thinking more as individuals about that and questioning if we choose to let that define us. We should be negotiating our gender more, thinking about if to do all of those culturally-defined things that make us women.

      There are lots of incredible girls and women taking on a broader variety of professional roles for example in science and mathematics and more girls and women are raising their voice about sexism and feminism as an issue. Reading Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism blog and The Guardian’s coverage of women’s rights issues is really encouraging as a feminist. We should really be doing more to celebrate amazing modern women who are doing incredible things based on intellect, confidence and empowerment. There’s a really major issue of a lack of promotion of women in leadership roles and in varied jobs showing how flexible we are as a gender (but there are some amazing projects like Lean In that are helping to combat that – and you’re helping to promote that via your blog!). I also really like charities like Girl Hub, the Girl Effect and Girlguiding UK that encourage empowerment through participation.

      Hopefully greater confidence and empowerment would enable women to go for promotions and ask for more pay.

      I’d say tips on raising confidence would be to:
      1. Participate – get involved in community groups and social groups focused on a specific hobby where you can learn from others, focus on a goal, and come away with something tangible achieved. I always try to keep learning.
      2. Keep questioning what you’re told – I’m naturally quite rebellious and as I work in media and communications I’m always questioning agendas. You’ll soon find that people who seem very confident actually often don’t know what they’re talking about. That always reminds me that everyone’s human and to never to fooled by bravado.
      3. Be inspired by other women (!)
      4. Challenge yourself and put yourself out of your comfort zone – nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that.

      It would be great to get your insights into other schemes that are helping girls and women to boost empowerment and confidence. Great work on your blog again!



      1. HI Alice, Thank you very much for your reply. I have just followed your blog too and look forward to your posts. I could not agree more with your comment; “I think we should be thinking more as individuals about that and questioning if we choose to let that define us.” By accepting and becoming society’s perception of a ‘woman’, we are doing ourselves a disfavor. Its impossible to live up to something that you are not and I think that rather than trying to please society we should be more focused on creating young women who are the best versions of themselves. Whether that’s by encouraging intellect, confidence or empowering them with the stories of inspirational women who have gone before them. Your blog is inspirational – Thank you for supporting the fight for gender equality.

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