Evidence-based action: the key tools governments can use to tackle the gender pay gap

By on 01/05/2024 | Updated on 02/05/2024
A photo of male and female figures sitting on piles of piles of coins to represent the gender pay gap
Photo: Shutterstock

The gender pay gap in the public sector – and wider society – is a persistent problem. At a GGF webinar, experts from different governments around the world shared thoughts on why it has proved so tough to tackle, and what needs to happen now

In Canada in 2021, for every dollar a man earned, a woman earned 89 cents. In the UK, the gender pay gap means that the average woman works the equivalent of 52 days for free every year.

During a recent Global Government Forum webinar, experts from these countries discussed efforts to address the stubborn gender pay gap, as well as trends in the public and civil service specifically.

Renée Roussel, director general, Federal Programs – Labour Program, Employment and Social Development Canada, outlined her country’s multi-pronged approach, including new transparency measures.

“From a Government of Canada perspective, we’ve demonstrated our commitment to reduce the gender pay gap, measure progress and build on accountability mechanisms through the continual advancement of our legal framework and indicators,” she said.

Canada’s Employment Equity Act, established in 1986, applies to federally regulated employers with more than 100 employees. This includes airlines, telecommunications firms and road transportation services, as well as federal crown corporations, the Federal Court and larger federal separate agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency.

The Act aims to achieve equality in the workplace and correct disadvantages for four specific groups: women, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and members of visible minorities.

“Since 1986, while some progress has been made over time and awareness of the importance of employment equity has increased, there has been minimal movement in the representation of women, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities in the federally regulated private sector workplace,” said Roussel.

Information is power

Recognising the link between employment equity and pay equity, in 2018, the Government of Canada committed to introducing two new pay transparency measures for the federally regulated private sector: pay gap reporting under the Employment Equity Act and proactive pay equity under the Pay Equity Act.

“They are meant to be complementary initiatives, but are independent from each other,” said Roussel.

In February this year, the government also launched the Equi’Vision online tool, which provides information on representation rates and pay gaps in the federally regulated private sector for the four groups covered by the Employment Equity Act.

Roussel called it a “first of its kind” and said: “This initiative provides the information needed so that employers and employees can find solutions to recognise the value of all workers.”

Adding public sector data to the tool is something that is being looked at under the Employment Equity Act modernisation effort.

“We are committed to further reducing the gender wage gap and we continue to work to achieve equality in the workplace and reduce under-representation and the pay gap for women,” Roussel added.

A very persistent kind of problem

Since 2017, public and private sector employees in England, Wales and Scotland with more than 250 employees have been required to annually publish data on the gender pay gap within their organisations annually.

 Analysis from the TUC union finds that the gender pay gap in the UK now stands at 14.3%. “And this gets worse as you get older,” said Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary of the FDA, a trade union representing senior civil servants. Further, disabled women face the highest pay gap at 35% compared to non-disabled men, which Thirlby said is the equivalent of £7,000 a year.

The pay gap varies by sector – the highest pay gap is in finance and insurance at 27.9% but even in female dominated sectors like education, the pay gap is high at 21.3%.

Since 2011, the pay gap has been closing by only 0.4 percentage points a year. “At current rates it will take until 2044 to close that gap,” said Thirlby. “We’re looking at a very persistent kind of problem.”

Although the pay gap for full-time employees is smaller in the public sector, the barriers are similar. The UK civil service has 50,000 more women than men.

“However, men outnumber women at the higher grades, which has an impact on the gender pay gap,” said Thirlby.

Although the gender pay gap in the civil service is reducing, some organisations have gaps that are higher than 14% and others, including the Cabinet Office, reported an increase in the gap last year.

In some cases, these pay gaps are “primarily due to the demographic of those departments,” Thirlby said.

She highlighted the “complex, varied and long-term” root causes of gender pay gaps, from direct discrimination to structural factors, such as occupational segregation, the part-time pay penalty, women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid caring, and women’s concentration in “low-paid, highly feminised sectors”.

Parenthood is also a factor. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the average earnings of men are almost completely unaffected by parenthood, but women’s earnings fall sharply when they become parents and then stabilise at a much lower level with little growth. Seven years after the birth of a first child, women’s earnings are on average less than half of men’s.

“We can [address that] by sorting out a range of rights and entitlements for parents and carers,” said Thirlby, who pointed out that women also go on to face a pension gender pay gap later in life.

A government first

While there are employment and equity legislative frameworks at the federal level in Canada, the provinces and territories also have a lot of autonomy on these issues.

Kadie Philp, commissioner and chief administrative officer, Pay Equity Commission of Ontario, observed that: “In countries, provinces or sub-national governments that have some form of reporting requirements, we see the gender wage gap closing much quicker.”

She highlighted work the province is doing to tackle some of the systemic issues raised during the webinar, noting that Ontario “was the first globally to introduce the concept of pay equity as equal pay for work of equal value or comparable worth”.

Ontario’s Pay Equity Act, established in 1987 and applicable to both the public and private sectors, was created to redress systemic discrimination in compensation for work performed by employees. For instance, some professions paid married women a lower salary due to the assumption that the husband would be the ‘breadwinner’ and in some fields, the ‘marriage bar’ meant women were required to resign upon marriage. Some of these practices lasted until the 1970s.

“It takes time to make those shifts happen in the labour market and change people’s ideas and beliefs about women’s bodies at work,” Philp said.

She also stressed that the Act applies not just to work carried out by women, but work performed by employees in female job classes.

The Act requires employers to assess all jobs in an organisation in order to determine whether employees in female and male job classes are being compensated equitably. “For example, the receptionist for a company may be as valuable to the organisation as the warehouse shipper-receiver,” the Pay Equity Office website states.

“We allow for flexibility in the interpretation and especially during the process of collective bargaining,” said Philp. “We really want employers and unions to work together to find the best solution in terms of finding pay equity within the institution.”

The Pay Equity Office provides a range of tools to support employers.

What more can be done?

Through data and legislation in particular, the panellists shared the importance of evidence-based actions to help shift the stubborn gender pay gap.

Roussel also highlighted a recent partnership with a Canadian behavioural insights organisation to develop a guide for employers that suggests that evidence-based actions can be taken to support the four designated groups.

For example, she said: “One of the big things on women in leadership is setting those internal targets for representation and equality – equal work for equal pay. We know that in the federal public sector, you already have the classification groups, but you still don’t have the numbers.”

It’s important to keep asking what more can be done, she added, and to keep sharing effective behavioural and systemic changes that can be made to reduce the gender pay gap.

The ‘How to eliminate the gender pay gap in civil and public services’ webinar was hosted by Global Government Forum and took place on 30 April 2024 .You can watch the webinar in full here.

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