Time to get serious about equal pay

The gender pay gap is about more than just a number. It’s about an attitude.

Earlier this year, in London’s Parliament Square, the UK unveiled the first statue of a woman to appear on this historically significant site. Taking her place alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, Millicent Fawcett stood tall as a tireless campaigner for the rights of women. Just weeks before this unveiling, British woman were up in arms again over a glaring 18.4% gender pay gap. In South Africa that figure stands at a reported 27%. And the silence here is deafening.

In 1918, exactly 100 years ago, Fawcett wrote in The Economic Journal: “I do not claim in all cases identical wages for men and women. If the men are worth more let them receive more, or if the women are worth more … let them receive more.” Fawcett was an advocate of fairness, and equal pay for equal work became a mantra of hers, along with the equally straightforward ‘equal pay for equal results’. But, irrespective of the phraseology and Fawcett’s life-long fight to achieve gender equality in her country, the UK is still fighting the good fight. And they are not alone, the equal pay-equal work discussion continues to dominate the debate around gender equality both in the developed world and in emerging nations.

Much of this, as the late anti-apartheid stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once declared, has to do with women’s own acceptance of this inequality. “The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly and even protect it, working out the resultant frustrations not against men but primarily against themselves.”

Recent events seem to bear this out. When the 2017 Pulse of the People report by market research firm Ipsos was unveiled, it was found that South African women earned 27% less than their male counterparts. This was found to be true across all race groups. But other than a few headlines and some social media activity debating the veracity of the claim, South African women noted the discrepancy and went back to work.

This is not the case in other economies. In Iceland, back in 2016, women stood up against a 30% pay gap in that country by shaving 30% of their eight-hour working day to highlight the gender pay gap. In early 2018 Iceland became the first country in the world to legally enforce equal pay.

In March 2018 more than five million Spanish women went on strike (including some of the country’s senior politicians) against sexual discrimination, domestic violence and the wage gap.

In the UK, new legislation now demands that companies employing more than 250 people must disclose the difference in pay between men and women. The first round of this reporting earlier this year highlighted some shocking offenders including the likes of JP Morgan, Ryanair, Apple UK and HSBC, which at 59% less than men displayed the widest gap in the banking sector, according to Bloomberg.

There are, of course, complexities to boiling down multi-layered social inequalities into single percentages, and as long as men continue to occupy senior posts in most organisations the difference in the average earnings of men versus women will persist. But statistics such as these do hold the promise of kick starting an important discussion about how to improve female representation and advancement in business, in corporate South Africa, in the public sector and in the world of entrepreneurship and business ownership.


Infographic: courtesy UNWomen


There are countless reasons why pushing this agenda is good for South Africa (not least of which is the United Nation’s realisation that the advancement of women leads to the advancement of societies), but in the face of overwhelming social issues like poverty, crime, unemployment and redressing the imbalances of the past, the advancement of women continues to take a back seat.

This is something which Faith Khanyile, CEO of WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH), believes must change. “Our work as the WDB across South Africa, but particularly in the rural heartland of the country, certainly highlights the fact that the face of poverty is still female.” For these women the debate is often not around equal pay, but any pay.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to frame these two debates together, the equal-pay fight taking place in a corporate boardroom in Sandton does have something in common with seeking to improve the prospects of a woman in Mooiplaas. “Both require advocacy,” says Khanyile. “You can’t expect anyone else to stand up if you don’t.” She adds that those women who are fortunate enough to serve on boards and in the higher levels of the corporate world must keep this issue firmly on the agenda. “The accountability for changing gender imbalances in the workplace is a strategic business imperative which these women must shoulder,” she says.

Fighting for equality in the boardroom certainly filters down, agrees Nicola Gubb, Chief Investment Officer at WDBIH. “If less empowered women see more empowered women taking a stand on issues such as the gender pay gap it gives them courage to find their own voice and stand up against discrimination in their own environments.”

Khanyile adds that this push should also be reinforced by practical and achievable policies. “This issue highlights the urgent need for the introduction of legislation that aims to address gender inequalities in the workplace,” she says.



Mentoring women, having these discussions out in the open and being prepared to be ‘unpopular’ by disrupting the corporate space is just part of how you turn around entrenched thinking that paying less for a service is acceptable simply because the provider is a woman. It’s about taking a long-term approach, says Gubb, and that means picking the right battles and targeting change methodically according to predetermined timeframes, says Gubb, possibly working in five- or 10-year goals.

Make no mistake, she says, the task ahead is daunting: “There are still the barriers – those subtle choices that get made in an organisation – and often more so if you are dealing with an old-fashioned style of leadership. Sometimes the prejudice is so ingrained that even those caught up in aren’t aware.”

As the advocates of gender equality around the world know only too well, winning this war takes patience, persistence and, notes Gubb, progress. “There must be steady progress,” she stresses, “and we have to set targets in order to measure that progress.”

The first number to fall must be 27%.