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The interview question propping up the gender pay gap

Asking people about their salary history in interviews perpetuates discrimination. Let's give it a rest. 

October 06 2022, 13.17pm

A lot can happen in 129 years: that’s how long it’ll take for women and men to be paid equally according to analysis by PwC. It’s hard to imagine life in 2151. If we look back in the other direction, 1893, two world wars hadn’t happened yet, we didn’t have antibiotics, mobile phones and the Internet and, as a woman, I wouldn’t have been able to vote.

Although women are paid less than men, that doesn’t mean that other pay gaps are less important, either. Workers of colour are paid an average of 2.3% less than White workers - add pay differences between different ethnicities and identities and the pay gap is even higher.  People who identify as LGBTQ+ earn 22% less than their straight counterparts. Inequities intersect, and when we talk about women in this article, we include women who have multiple forms of discrimination to contend with based on their gender, race, sexual identity, or disability.

Not only does the gender pay gap harms women’s health, the difference between men and women’s pension savings means we’re more likely to be in poverty when we retire. The crisis is already affecting women more harshly than it is affecting men and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget has been described as “one of the largest single transfers of wealth to the richest in this country’s history.” 

Women are more likely to use food banks and fair pay for women could improve financial situations for many households in the UK, especially in women-led single-parent homes. Abolishing the pay gap will also give us more freedom. Nearly three quarters of domestic abuse victims have said that the cost-of-living crisis prevented them fleeing an abusive partner

To discover that you’ve been paid less than colleagues who are doing the same work is humiliating, and it’s difficult to speak out - especially if that pits  you, an individual, against a huge company with massive resources. Societal assumptions have become so common we forget to look at them properly: such as the idea that women want or choose lower-paid jobs, or that they don’t play “the game” as well as men do. With some exceptions, like the banker who had a witch's hat left on her desk, the gender pay gap rarely grabs headlines. 

To say women ‘choose’ lower-paid jobs ignores so much of what’s under the tip of that argument. Our choices aren’t divorced from what society expects, and childhood stereotypes have a lot to answer for. Digging deeper, we underpay jobs such as care work and educating children, which are exactly the kind of ‘feminine’ roles girls are more likely to be encouraged into. Almost 60% of jobs paid below the living wage are held by women. But we’re paid less even when we get male-dominated jobs. Female directors are paid 23% less than their male counterparts, and the gender pay gap in STEM can be as high as 30%. When it comes to asking for more and negotiating, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The evidence shows women are as likely to ask for a pay rise, but 25% less likely to get one, and that women who negotiate well face backlash.

In my case, I remember one teacher telling my class full of girls not to rule out the trades. This wasn’t quite the brave strike out against stereotypes it could have been: he reckoned that stay-at-home mums would rather answer the door to a nice girl who’d clean up after herself.

The work women do for nothing is estimated to be worth £700 billion to the UK economy. Until we start valuing that work and, by extension, care work - whether it’s caring for children at home, for patients in hospital, or providing education - we won’t have a fair society. 

I joined the campaign to End Salary History because I was impressed by the analysis that showed how much damage one old-fashioned question about how much you used to earn is doing. Women and people of colour are more likely to experience discrimination, and women more likely to take career breaks and work part-time. You only need to be underpaid once for it to follow you around for the rest of your career. Getting rid of that question makes a real difference. In the US, scrapping it resulted in an 8% pay rise for women and a 13% pay rise for Black people. You can support our work by encouraging employers to pledge not to ask salary history, or signing and sharing this new petition.

Ending salary history alone won’t cut it when it comes to ending the gender pay gap. But the chance to shrink a problem by 10% is one we should take. 

Let’s not wait until 2151 to stop undervaluing women.


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