International Women’s Day. It’s back. Controversial as ever, bringing up all sort of mixed feelings about celebrating women and their achievements, but also the questioning the need for a specific day, if equality is the goal. No matter where you sit on the gender equality debate, International Women’s Day is a thing and it’s here. While in some countries like Spain, women go on strike in protest of the high rates of deaths by domestic violence and the staggering pay gap, the UK marks it in a much more subdued manner. Offices will put on “women-themed” events, businesses recognise the accomplishments of their female staff and girls fill Facebook with cheesy posts about their mothers, sisters and friends. All sentimentality aside though, International Women’s Day is an excellent opportunity for us to take stock of where we’re at as a society in terms of gender equality. While the minefields that are domestic abuse, gender violence and everyday sexism are all valid focuses for today, we’d like to focus on an area where social care actually proves themselves to be a more open and equal sector: the gender pay gap. Although the national average is quoted at around 16.8%, the health and social care sector do recognisably better with 9.5% across NHS organisations and just 3.2% within some of the largest social care companies.
Such a low gender pay gap in the health and social care sector has got to be a reassuring thing. A sign of progress even. It symbolises that we are capable of reducing the difference in pay between men and women, judging more based on their capabilities than bringing gender into the discussion.
However, it’s not quite as simple as that. (It never is, is it…)
Yes, a lower gender pay gap is a good thing, but the issue is that when you delve deeper into the context of that gap, it becomes slightly less impactful. Health and social care is a notoriously female-dominated profession, making the issue at hand less likely to be disparity of pay within the sector but actually when comparing it to other industries. Female-driven sectors are regularly undervalued, receiving lower amounts of press, support, recruitment support and most importantly, lower wages than other jobs. Therefore, while it’s positive that women are not being paid much less than men within social care, it is highly likely that the profession as a whole are suffering in comparison to other areas which typically have more men, like engineering or law.
This also raises a curious question in my mind. If the variety between wages of men and women in an environment where men are the minority is so low, does this mean that the gender pay gap as we know it, only really happens in one direction? Does it only negatively affect women, even if they’re the majority of professionals in a sector? Is there ever a scenario where a man is paid less than a woman for the same position?
Promoting gender equality and female empowerment is not just about finances though, and this is where I’m afraid, the health and social care sector fits the stereotype. Men are reported as filling more of the senior roles across the sector, despite the gender being the minority within health and social care. So, there’s still vast progress to be made. Why, if there are so many women in social care, are they not in an equal (or even majority) of the leadership and senior positions? The gender pay gap here is showing that it’s not just to do with the differences in pay within the same role, but the restriction of women being able to ascend to higher paying, more responsible roles.
Time to shatter the glass ceiling once and for all.
The National Office of Statistics estimates that the fact that men and women traditionally work in different areas (nurturing positions versus more aggressive roles) accounts for 36% of the pay gap across the country. So, a large part of the solution needs to be removing the gender-stigma that is associated with many sectors, like social care. We know that men can do just as brilliant a job as women in any sector, in the same way women have just the same amount of potential to take on a “man’s job”. We need to rewire our brains so that we stop thinking of a particular job as more suited to a man or a woman. It’s about character, especially in social care where it relies on strong levels of compassion but also pragmatism and strength. Let’s make it a level playing field for all, supporting women into more “male” sectors but also encouraging men into health and social care.
Moreover, it’s also important for organisations to ensure that they have the correct structure in place to help women who wish to progress, take that next step into more senior roles. Employees need support along the progression process, and services need to be aware of any policies or subliminal messaging that may be isolating women from stepping forward.
Above all, promote a policy of “earning your way” instead of focussing on a need to hire women just to seem fair. Remove gender from the discussion. At its heart, the feminism and gender equality movement has always been about achieving equality of opportunity, not special treatment. It’s time to honour that belief by making sure that women are only being judged on their talents and capabilities, rather than how much they help balance out a diversity quota. After all, that’s really all International Women’s Day is about.
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