How Discretionary Pay Penalises Women Breadwinners

To what do female breadwinners attribute their success? In a 2010 US Redbook magazine survey, breadwinning wives did not feel particularly strategic about their careers, nor that they worked longer hours than their partners. Instead, they recognised that they were more highly educated and so landed more lucrative jobs.

As we have seen, women are capitalising on unprecedented educational opportunities. Quite rightly, this wave of educated women expects to be paid at a level commensurate with their skills. According to the Pew Research Centre, women’s earnings grew 44 per cent between 1970 and 2007, compared with a mere six per cent growth for men. This sharper growth has enabled women to narrow, but not close, the earnings gap with men. To this end, median earnings of full-year female workers in 2007 were 71 per cent of the earnings of comparable men. This was a rise from a paltry 52 per cent in 1970.

In the past, employers often viewed working women as being the secondary provider to a male breadwinner. This effectively legitimised paying women less. It contributed to the concept of the ‘family wage’: a salary for one person that could support an entire family. The concept of the family wage has been all but eradicated, yet the gender pay gap has remained.

Pay equality is one way in which organisations demonstrate their commitment to attracting and retaining talented women. Much progress has been made in recent years at encouraging parity. However, according to research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2009, in fields with discretionary pay elements such as financial services, women earn up to 47 per cent less than men.

Bonuses are often too subjective and left to managerial discretion which is subject to unconscious bias at best. There is a problematic lack of transparency. Indeed, organisations will go to lengths to protect that lack of clarity, such as termination of those who seek to compare salaries with colleagues. This all suggests that until employees have far greater transparency in how discretionary pay is awarded and how they compare with colleagues, there can be little progress in pay equality.

The pay differential cannot be explained solely by women leaving to have children either, as most women in these positions start on lower initial salaries as well. This means women, particularly if they are responsible for all of a family’s income, are doubly losing out – first by the likelihood of being underpaid merely because of their gender, and secondly by not having a financially contributing man to bolster the family income.

Organisations need to rectify pay inequities for several reasons. Women are increasingly choosing organisations with a commitment to equality, in deed and not just in word. The establishment of lists in the UK that publicise ‘Top 100 Employers for Women’ or ‘Companies Women Want to Work For’ are evidence of the greater awareness that talented women have more choice than generations of women before.

At a time when more women are taking up the mantle of primary breadwinner, a gendered pay gap can no longer be tolerated. It’s just not good for any employer who wants to attract the best talent. Any discrepancies will encourage this group of hard-working women to take their skills to an employer who will pay them at a rate commensurate with their skills, and that number of women is rapidly growing.

I will be speaking about Female Breadwinners on March 26th at Women in Banking and Finance in Edinburgh, so if you are north of the border and would like to join me you can get more information here.

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