/Waiting for the penny to drop: Fighting the gender pay gap in Europe

Waiting for the penny to drop: Fighting the gender pay gap in Europe

Source: James Cridland

Activist Madi Sharma gazes out from the pulpit. “This is not my Europe. Is it yours?”, the crowd is fixed with a stern, quizzical stare. “So why are you here? If you don’t intend to act after today, then you’re wasting my time as well as wasting your own.”

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Madi Sharma doesn’t have time to muck around. A few days after giving this speech at the European Commission’s Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights, she breezes into Chez Mauricettes café, greeting the staff like old friends. Striding over, giving a firm handshake and beaming a broad smile. “Sorry I’m late” she says, “I was arguing with a Commissioner.”

If you need someone arguing in your court, you want it to be Madi Sharma. She is an entrepreneur, who runs her own business called Madi Group, a group of international private sector and social enterprises, not for profit companies and NGOs. Their philosophy is, “to create innovative ideas tailored to local action which can achieve global impacts beneficial to a sustainable society.” Sharma is vivacious, full of good humour and isn’t about to be silenced by anybody. The same passion emanates from her while being interviewed as when giving her speech at the Colloquium. Her speech at this year’s colloquium was amongst those focusing on the issue of women’s equal participation at work and in politics, the overarching topic being, ‘Women’s Rights in Turbulent Times’.

Sharma also plays an advisory role to the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) which works directly with the European Union (EU), providing advice from representatives of workers and employers organisations. Even within the EESC, the lack of women is felt, Sharma is among the women that make up only 23 per cent of this advisory body. “I’m on a fight, every time I raise my hand. I have to raise issues and that makes me a trouble-maker.” On the topic of gender equality and women’s rights she’s a force to be reckoned with.

This month the Commission announced their 2018-2019 ‘Action Plan’ (PDF) to tackle the gender pay gap. It comes hot on the heels of the commemoration of ‘European Equal Pay Day’, which fell on the 3rd of November this year. This day ironically highlights when women stop getting paid and start working for free compared to their male co-workers. European women work for free, on average two months of every year. The gender pay gap can be described as the difference in average hourly wage between men and women. The Commission has found that currently in the EU, women earn on average 16.3 per cent less per hour than men.

Despite many countries in the EU implementing policy that aims at bridging the gap, the inequality persists. “It starts and it’s allowed because we don’t have equal parity in the numbers of men and women who are giving votes at the policy making level. This means every single policy in the European Union, in fact almost globally is bias towards men. We have the legislation against the gender pay gap but it’s not effectively implemented because we don’t have the numbers of women we need to push it forward.” says Sharma.

In a report (PDF) release by the Council of Europe in September this year, it was shown that positions of political power in Europe in 2016 were “almost exclusively male dominated” with less than 11 per cent of countries meeting a 40 per cent minimum of both men and women in executive positions. One of the eight priority areas within the Commission’s 2018 – 2019 ‘Action Plan’, specifically targets this problem of a glass ceiling. A glass ceiling, which refers to an unacknowledged barrier to the advancement of an individual in a profession, is most certainly present in the decision-making processes of Europe.

It is also an issue of participation, as wage specialist for the International Labour Organization (ILO), Rosalia Vasquez-Alvarez points out. “If you have women that keep on participating at very feminised centres of the workforce, then you have a significant bulk of individuals who are being paid at the low end of the wage distribution. By just informing people about the issue of the gender pay gap…that doesn’t actually do very much for reducing the gender pay gap.” Women being more likely to participate in lower paying jobs, highlights the complexity of this issue and the importance of looking at how the pay gap is shaped before individuals even enter the labour market.

“Until now we didn’t really consider the gender pay gap before people went into the labour market. What is going on at the household level, how people treat kids for example, there are some studies that show there is a pocket money pay gap. When you have siblings of similar age and of different gender, it’s about 20 per cent difference in the pocket money they get paid.” says Rosalia. These studies show a need to look beyond the averages, the statistics that are collected from current labour markets.

Once arrived at the labour market the damage of gender culture and gender stereotypes has already been done. It’s therefor more likely Rosalia argues, that women will accept a lower wage, compared to men in the same labour market. “These are the sort of things that also determine the gender pay gap…It’s an issue of education, of educating society to think of men and women as equal. And that’s a way for us to try and start thinking of a way to reduce the pay gap, not now not today but in the long run.”

As for tackling the gender pay gap today, quotas are arguably the most immediate solution. In countries where there has been quota legislation, women’s representation increased. Paola Antonia Profeta, associate professor in Public Economics at University Bocconi in Milan, has been working on this topic for the past fifteen years. Quotas she says, are the only way to bridge the gap rapidly. “We don’t like quotas because we don’t want women to be promoted only because they are women and not because of their own merit and competence… but we’re starting from a situation where female talent is actually not used and not recognised. The statistics always tell us, women are competent and more educated than men but yet we never or rarely find women in top positions. So, because we are in the real world, not the ideal world, we need quotas to break down this problem.”

Not everyone agrees though, Madi Sharma instead pushes for targeted objectives. “Quotas very often result in the tokenism that we’re trying to avoid.” But whatever the level, she says, there has to be equal numbers of both genders in the room. Targeted objectives, Sharma describes, involve ensuring there is 40 per cent of either gender in the workplace and 50 per cent parity voting. “If you have one woman and two men in the room and their voting then the woman gets two votes.” Whether it be quotas or targeted objectives, the need for action now is clear. “Unless we push for something and have sanctions with it, even short term we’re not gonna get the change.” Says Sharma.

While the topic of gender equality and the gender pay gap appears to be at the forefront of discussion at an EU level, it remains to be seen what concrete actions will come from it. Whilst explaining her work with the EESC, Sharma doesn’t seem convinced that enough is being done. “We’ve managed to produce papers on the gender pay gap and gender pensions gap and now we’re doing one on care workers. But we’re doing almost nothing on gender in there at the moment.” says Sharma. The onus is being put on the employers to provide things such as maternity pay, rather than the state, she says. At the end of the day women are forced to bear the brunt of this issue when small companies, who cannot afford to pay maternity leave, avoid hiring young women.

Employing more women and providing them with equal work for equal pay is good for the economy. As Paola Antonia Profeta describes, ignoring 50 per cent of the population’s talent is causing us to lose out on economic potential. Pushing for equality today through quotas or targeted objectives, at a governmental and corporate level is where change can be made and at a faster rate than what is happening currently. Through education and decisive action at a policy level, as well as at an individual level, the gender pay gap can be closed.

“Women have 86 per cent of the purchasing power and yet we don’t use this power that we have to change the world.” Says Sharma. Women can take the number of female employees at a company into account and boycott companies that fail to adhere to standards of equality. “We are different but we are equal, that’s what I’m fighting for.” Madi Sharma pushes her cup aside. Her coffee may be finished but the fight is never ending.