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Unequal Worth, Unequal Pay

This is a shocking reality even today. Why we need equal and diverse workplaces-since there is still room for doubt

Swarna Rajagopalan  

 

  • The fans in our flat are cleaned every month. We call the young man who does odd jobs around the house and pay him Rs 50 per fan. When one month he cannot come, the woman who cleans our house every day offers to do it. We pay her Rs 100 in all. It's fair, we think, she gets paid for being a cleaner anyway.
  • We are hiring an administrator. The final contenders are a 35-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman. We offer her the job because we cannot match his salary expectation. She does not discuss money and we offer her less than what we think we have to pay him.

Gender wage gaps begin at home. In fact, early feminist posters would state that women have to do twice the work men did to earn half as much.

What is the gender wage gap?

Simply put, it is the difference between what men and women earn. This gap arises most obviously because men and women are paid differently for the same work, all other things -- training, experience, talent and delivery -- being equal. That difference, in turn, goes to show how we value men and women. Especially women -- who they are, what they do, what they achieve and what they need. Clearly, we value anything that men do more than anything that women do. In the sectors that employ more women -- the care economy, teaching, the informal sector -- they are all much worse compensated, or not paid at all. Men work in sectors that are better organized, better regulated and better paid. Last year, the Monster Salary Index revealed wage differentials in several industries, across levels. The report found that women in India earn 27 per cent less than men in most places; so if a man got Rs 100 for this article, as a woman, I should expect to get Rs 73.

Why this disparity hurts

Unequal pay for equal work is only one explanation for why women earn less. Being perpetually undervalued has consequences throughout women's lives. Poorer childhood nutrition results in poorer health lifelong and lower productivity. Lack of access to educational opportunities lock women into low-skilled or unskilled jobs, which, by definition, pay less. Today's economies require and prize technical skill, and a society that keeps women from acquiring more than functional literacy locks them into poverty. With poverty comes vulnerability to displacement and exploitation. In a crisis or downturn, women are the first to lose their jobs and the last to receive compensation. They rarely own assets and, lacking capital, struggle to raise money for entrepreneurship. Patrilocal marriage means they start adult life without the social capital men have that enables them to find work, raise credit or identify mentors.

In India, women make up only 28 per cent of the labour force, according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report. The report finds that, on an average, women work 537 minutes a day and men 442. But 66 per cent of the work women do is unpaid as opposed to 12 per cent in the case of men. Women just work fewer hours for pay than do men. The International Labour Organization report, Women at Work, estimates it will take 70 years to close the gender wage gap.

Traditional society expects that women will put household and family needs above their professional growth. Girls often make educational choices that reflect this limitation; for instance, choosing to train as schoolteachers to accommodate the schedules of their children, rather than to train as astronauts. Although large numbers of girls study the physical sciences in India, the numbers that pursue research careers in pure science or technology are still limited. Women make up only 15 per cent of those who work in the area of research and development, according to the Global Gender Gap Report.

Throughout their careers women are likely to take time off to have and raise children or care for family elders. Anticipating this, they are offered less money and less responsibility at every stage. In fact, those women who manage to transcend all these barriers encounter a glass ceiling in leadership positions. The Global Gender Gap Report finds women make up only 10 per cent of publicly traded company board memberships.

The gender wage gap should come as no surprise, then, to any of us. The Constitution of India guarantees the Right to Equality and prohibits discrimination, and the 1976 Equal Remuneration Act reinforces this without prejudice to special measures like maternity leave. But laws are rarely enough.

Bridging the gap

The journey to wage equality has two other components. First, there should be enforceable guidelines, drafted by the government and industry together, for minimum and equal wages that are then adopted across the board, as part of the drive towards equal and diverse workplaces. Monitoring and penalties for non-compliance should be decided and enforced by each industry. This would work in consonance with proactive efforts to hire and promote inclusively, offering training and mentoring as needed. Second, when gender equality becomes the social norm, the gender gap in wages will close. Tangible initiatives to drive this begin with removing structural impediments to women's growth as individuals and citizens -- access to nutrition, health and education; access to skills training, jobs and credit; and, of course, access to decision-making.

The most important obstacle to wage equality, however, lies in our attitudes. When women value themselves enough to fight for their due, and when society values all human beings equally, the gender wage gap will cease to be an issue.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and independent scholar. She is also the founder of The Prajnya Trust in Chennai, which works towards gender equality.

 

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