Exploring the Gender Pay Gap in Education

This guest piece is from Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society – June 2020

Pay inequality thrives because of a lack of transparency. We don’t like talking about pay, and women don’t currently have the right to know what their male colleagues earn even if they suspect pay discrimination. In order to find out, they have to go all the way to an employment tribunal. My charity, the Fawcett Society, is actively campaigning to change that. But in the education sector, there is more transparency there than in most workplaces, with clear pay scales for teaching staff and it is also a highly unionised sector, which is not the case in many other workplaces. So the gender pay gap should be much smaller there than elsewhere, and it is. Yet the headline ONS gender pay gap figures show that across all teaching and education professionals, women earn 7.5% less than men on average. This is partly driven by where women are concentrated in the education sector, with men still dominating higher paid, senior roles, and women forming the majority of lower paid teaching staff. In Higher Education, the gap grows to 8.4%. 

It is also important to note here that the ethnicity pay gap is much wider than the gender pay gap. If we look at the gender pay gap by ethnicity, we find that some minority ethnic groups, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, earn 26% less than white men—black African women, 20% less. The pay gap is a single, simple figure, but it is the product of multiple structural inequalities. The value of measuring it is it prompts us to ask why and to look behind the numbers.

In secondary schools, women are two-thirds of teaching staff, yet more than 60% of headteachers are men. This is partly because of career breaks that women have taken when they have children. Men progress their careers more quickly when they become fathers but women’s careers plateau or go into reverse when they become mothers. This in turn is driven by structural factors such as our parental leave system which is still structured to give mothers or primary carers 9 months paid leave and fathers or second carers only two weeks paid leave, unless the primary carer chooses to share some leave with their partner. We need to create a leave system which presumes equal responsibility in caring for children. But it’s also a product of the lack of good quality part-time and flexible work. This is still an issue in the teaching profession, where there are fewer part-time teaching roles. So for parents who want to work part-time or to job-share, there are fewer opportunities, and they are less likely to progress. If senior roles are only available full-time, we are excluding a significant proportion of the workforce (mostly women) who want and need to work differently, but who will be as well qualified or even better qualified than the (mostly men) who get those top jobs. That leads to women working below their skill level and doing so for many years. It simply doesn’t make sense for the economy.

Whichever data we use, it takes us to the fundamental question, why is the work done by women valued less than the work done by men? The answer lies in the unpaid care and domestic work that is still largely done by women. If women do all that for free, they and their labour must be worth less. This is why social care workers are valued so poorly, and caring is treated as an unskilled job. So we have to start valuing care, whether paid or unpaid and that in turn will raise the status of women in the labour market. But we have to unravel it further than that. Fawcett’s Early Childhood Commission has found that caring is something that girls are encouraged to do, and boys are discouraged to show. So we don’t just undervalue caring, we actively channel girls towards it and to roles which are caring professions, and we steer boys in a very different direction, towards technical, engineering, science subjects and, consequently, better paid professions.

There is much that can be done to close the pay gap, but it requires action across multiple causes, including the way we teach our youngest children and the way we design work and share unpaid care. But the prize is women fulfilling their potential in the labour market. The prize is equality. Why wouldn’t we want that?

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