Gender pay gap: Quite a pervasive inequality

Balanced scale with a man and womanIceland recently surprised the world by enacting a law that requires companies to prove that they are paying men and women equally for performing the same jobs. The country’s effort to minimise the gender pay gap and thus gender inequality has been hailed across the world.

The gender pay gap is a global discrepancy, more widespread and severe than it is considered to be. For instance, Iceland itself had passed the first legislation mandating equal pay for men and women in 1961. At that time, members of the Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, were hopeful that full pay equality would be reached in only six years, in 1967. However, the small and prosperous country with a population under 3,50,000 couldn’t attain that goal in over half a century despite making efforts and finally had to resort to stricter legislation!

What could be the reason behind the gender pay gap being so pervasive even in developed countries? It is certainly not the case that men in general are smarter or more hardworking than women to deserve higher remuneration for the same jobs. These qualities have nothing to do with one’s gender. Yes, a large number of women especially in patriarchal societies do remain more ignorant about various things than men; the reason is not that women lack
intelligence but that they are denied by their families opportunities and exposure to the world that is not forbidden for most men.

Females are from very young ages ‘taught’ that they are primarily care givers whose responsibility is to look after their homes and families. This often influences their choice of careers as they aspire for jobs that will not complicate looking after their homes. Don’t we in India hear a lot of women talk about finding ‘safe’ jobs with ‘manageable’ working hours? Even for women who don’t have such mindset, childbirth takes them back by a few steps in their careers. No wonder research shows that income equality between men and women is more stable in their 20s but starts to go haywire after their late 20s and 30s (childbearing years for women), stabilising after women cross the 40 mark (when the kids are comparatively independent).

It’s mostly the mother, not the father, who either takes a few years’ break from work or makes sure that even if she keeps the job her professional life doesn’t come in the way of the children’s upbringing. When the kids fall sick or have exams, it’s so uncommon to see fathers instead of mothers taking leaves from work. In most households, domestic chores are the women’s duty. No matter how capable a woman is, her career does get affected when she has to divert her energy to significant household and caregiving responsibilities. Many women thus opt for jobs far below their qualifications. This also leads to women not negotiating their salaries as well as men do because many of them are more focused on getting the job that would let them divert their attention to their homes. This isn’t the case for men; they are expected to carry on with life as usual no matter what kind of hell breaks loose in the house.

All this strengthens the widespread perception that men are the primary bread winners whereas women’s incomes are supplementary. We all have heard of women relocating with their husbands when they are transferred to other cities or countries but how many men instinctively give up their jobs to shift base if their wives are transferred? On the contrary we all know of cases where women change their jobs to suit the husbands’ or children’s or in-law’s needs.

The gender pay gap is one of the factors that stem from gender discrimination and keep spinning in the vicious cycle that results in furthering prejudices between males and females.