Do women earn less than their male colleagues?

Jo SwinsonEarlier this month, women and equalities minister Jo Swinson suggested that a major reason for women's poor pay is that - wait for it - they don't realise that men are getting more.

"I think sometimes there's something very British in our culture where we don't talk about money, and I think that holds women back," she told Elle magazine.

"If they realised they were earning significantly less than male colleagues at a similar level, that might be the catalyst they need to ask for a pay rise."

The fact is, though, that few women can be unaware of the pay gap that sees them earn almost half a million pounds less over their lifetimes than men for the same work. According to a report from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), female managers are paid, on average, 25 percent less than their male equivalents, and receive less than half as much as men in bonuses. The disparity only widens as women climb the management tree.

The Fawcett Society puts the blame on the coalition government, whose policies, it says, have allowed the gender gap to widen significantly since it came into power.

"The government's various plans for growth continue to leave many women behind, with the majority of new jobs being created in the private sector going to men. At the same time, those women who do find work in this sector are likely to face lower wages and a wider gender pay gap," says chief executive Ceri Goddard.

"We urgently need to tackle the unacceptably low wages paid to the women who make up two thirds of those on the national minimum wage, mostly in the private sector, by uprating this in line with inflation. At the same time, more must be done to encourage progressive working practices – particularly as competition for quality part-time work is fiercer than ever – women make up three-quarters of those in part-time work."

In the meantime, though, should women take Swinson's advice and start grilling their male colleagues about how much they earn?

Until recently, many companies included secrecy clauses in their contracts, banning employees from discussing their pay with colleagues. Such clauses, though, were banned in 2010 as part of the Equality Act - precisely to make it easier for women and others to find out whether they were being discriminated against.

However, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has given a pretty good idea of how such questioning might actually go down in the office, commenting: "how much someone earns has always been a deeply private matter", and adding that such questions could lead to "jealousies and rancour". Indeed.

More productive, perhaps, would be for women to negotiate harder over pay in the first place. Research has repeatedly shown that women tend to ask for lower pay when accepting a new job, with one Canadian study revealing that, on average, female university students expect starting salaries 14 percent lower than men with the same skills and experience. Women are also significantly less willing to ask for a pay rise once they've got the job and feel a lot more uncomfortable when they do.

This needs to change, says Sarah Berry, managing director of

"If you are unhappy about your current earnings or financial situation then you need to take positive action in order to change it. These days women have a lot of say and power with regards to their salary levels," she says. "It is up to each woman to sell herself according to her own skill set and to remind her employer of the benefit she offers the company."

The big problem with this is that - for women - hard negotiation can actually be financially counter-productive. In a widely-cited 2005 study, researchers found that female candidates were penalised for being 'pushy' in salary negotiations in a way that men were not: they sub-titled their paper 'Sometimes it does hurt to ask'.

Equally, it seems highly unlikely that asking male colleagues about their earnings will do much to improve a woman's prospects at work. But at least now, with the abolition of pay secrecy clauses, the law is on the side of anybody that does so. And there may be safety in numbers: the more women ask the question, the less stigmatised they're likely to be.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is monitoring how well the abolition of secrecy clauses is working out in practice, and is asking for feedback to be emailed to All contributions will be kept private - naturally.

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