TCS Daily

Gender Bender: Mind the Gaps

By Tim Worstall - January 9, 2006 12:00 AM

The Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK recently celebrated 30 years of its existence with a report on the still extant gap in pay between men and women. As a piece of politics it was highly effective, only 10 days later David Cameron, the Prime Minster in Exile (or Leader of the Opposition, more formally) was repeating the headline claim. As the Daily Telegraph reported: "He said that after 30 years of the Equal Pay Act, women's pay was still nearly a fifth lower than men's, and for women working part-time, the gap was around 40 percent."

Perhaps we should applaud a bureaucracy which is able to get its point across in quite such an efficient manner? Well, no, not really, for the claim is wrong and the figures have been manipulated to make that very political point. Here are the figures, in full, that were released (hourly wages):

Public sector:
Male, full-time employees £15.20
Female, Full-time employees £13.18
Female, part-time employees £10.11
Full-time pay gap 13.3%
Part-time pay gap 33.5%

Private sector:
Male, full-time employees £13.75
Female, Full-time employees £10.65
Female, part-time employees £7.60
Full-time pay gap 22.5%
Part-time pay gap 44.7%

All employees:
Male, full-time employees £14.08
Female, Full-time employees £11.67
Female, part-time employees £8.68
Full-time pay gap 17.1%
Part-time pay gap 38.4%

And the explanation of the calculation is:

"The full-time time pay gap is the gap between the hourly earnings of women and men working full-time as a percentage of men's full-time earnings, and the part-time pay gap is the gap between the hourly earnings of part-time women and full-time men as a percentage of men's full-time earnings."

Do you think that a fair method of calculation? That we should compare part time wages to full-time? More importantly, that we should compare female part-time wages to male full-time? Before you answer that, ask yourself which numbers might be missing. Ah, yes, what were male part-time earnings? Might we not want to compare men's full-time with women's and men's part-time with women's such? Wouldn't that be a better way of measuring the gender gap? Oddly, the EOC doesn't give us those numbers. However, part of the code of honor in these online times is that you should point to the sources of your data, which they do, to the Office of National Statistics.

I mean it might be that such numbers are not recorded, which is why they left them out. Or it could be that using those figures might not support their contention. Rooting around, in fact, in exactly the same spreadsheet that the figures the EOC does use came from, we find these two interesting numbers:

Male, part-time employees public sector £14.07

Male, part-time employees private sector £8.53

Ah, that's the solution then, they didn't use them because if they had the gender gap would have been 28 percent in the public sector and 11 percent in the private. Yes, it's still a gender gap, it does look as if women are being treated unfairly, but it's not quite the screaming headline that their use of the figures provides. When I called the EOC Press Office to ask about this strange fact I was told that "Comparing men's part-time [wages] with women's part-time [wages] would not be comparing like with like."

Oh, really?

It is at this point that I begin to get a touch annoyed. Yes, I realize that bureaucracies exist in order to exist, and I'm not naïve enough to think they actually desire to solve anything, but there is a certain dismay at the way they slice and dice these numbers. For what we actually see here is not a single gender gap of 40 percent but three different and quite specific gaps.

The first is that public sector pay is higher than private sector. Which is, of course, why the public sector workers need to have better pensions, earlier retirement dates and greater job security to make up for the horrors of their working conditions. But there it is, a public/private gap. Then there is a difference in wages per hour between those who work full time and those who do so part time. A full/part time gap.

Thirdly there is the male/female gap.

To run all three of these quite discrete things together and call them the "gender gap" is to my mind somewhere between mendacity and casuistry. Still, annoyance can be motivating so I went off to see what else I could discover about relative rates of pay for men and women. The Labour Force Survey actually shows us wages per occupation broken down by sex. Here it's very difficult indeed to see any discrimination against women. In such things as "Process Operatives" men do get paid more but then that's manual labor so we would expect men to be more productive at it. In such areas as "Health Associate Professionals" (i.e. nurses) women get paid more than men and we might think that women's greater empathy and communications skills could explain that. Where there is no obvious reason to think that men and women will be either more or less productive at a particular job then pay rates do seem equal.

So while we do have a gender gap it isn't because women are being treated unfairly in a particular job at all. One further possible explanation is that the discrimination is between the sorts of jobs typically done by women and those by men. I'm sure we'd all agree that this was indeed true at some point in the past, things like different access to education, to career paths, to social choices such as the expectation of being a stay-at-home mom (indeed, it is within the memory of those still living that women were forced out of work upon marriage). Even, though I dislike thinking of abortion in these terms, I'm sure that the absence of a legal method changed the life options of many women.

But these are all in the past, or at least we hope they are so time perhaps to go back to the ONS and look at those same numbers as broken down by age cohort.

Median hourly earnings.

Male FT

Female FT
















As you can see there is a gender gap, quite large, for those over 40; and one hardly noticeable, a few pence per hour, for those under 30. This could be caused by two things. Given the average age at which people have children these days, in their late 20s, this could be a sign that mothers of children are discriminated against. It might also be that it is an entirely rational discrimination. We don't think it amazing that the young get paid less than those with a couple of decades of experience under their belt, and given that many do in fact stay at home to look after their children for a few years, until they start school for example, it wouldn't be all that surprising to find that their job skills would be a bit rusty. Indeed, it's one of the standard assumptions about how to deal with long term unemployment that after 12 months out of the workforce, people will need some retraining and help to re-enter, as they've simply lost some of the necessary such skills.

There is also, as ever with any statistics, another possible explanation. A rather cheering one actually. As above, we're quite sure that there was indeed sexual discrimination in the past and for those near the end of their working lives they would have entered the labor market in the 1960s. A time when, I'm sure we would all agree, there were in fact such impediments put in the way of women's careers. Which is why noting that there is no gender gap for the under 30s is indeed to be cheered. What the use of the overall figures buries is that we used to have discrimination and now do not. We still have the historic effects of it, but whatever it is that we needed to do we've already done and the up and coming generation won't suffer further.

There are a few other little signs that this might indeed be the truth. For example, the EOC itself states:

"In 1975, women represented just one third of higher education students. In 2005, girls are outperforming boys at school and represent of 56% of those in higher education."

And John Tierney has noted something similar in the US:

"Women, who were a minority on campuses a quarter-century ago, today make up 57 percent of undergraduates, and the gender gap is projected to reach a 60-40 ratio within a few years."

It is also true in the UK that the majority of those qualifying as solicitors (Britspeak for a type of lawyer) and doctors are female and both are highly paid professions.

So by looking at exactly the same information we can come to two wildly different conclusions. If we were the bureaucracy tasked with eradicating gender discrimination we would deliberately select those numbers and present them in such a fashion so as to make the task ahead of us seem both terribly difficult and extremely important, hoodwinking a few politicians in the process (yes, I know, not a terribly difficult task).

If we were a more disinterested observer (yes, of course I'm entirely neutral about such matters) we might note that we used to have a problem and don't any more. Declare victory, a few shouts of "Hurrah, Hurrah" and proclaim mission accomplished. We could then abolish the bureaucracy and set the resources to try and solve the next problem on our long list of things we'd like to improve.

Ah, I think that explains why the figures were presented in the original manner.

Bureaucracies, dontch'a just love'm ?

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor living in Europe. He is the editor of 2005 Blogged.


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