Brian Monteith: Gender pay gap drive highlights flaws in May’s judgment

Theresa May just wants to get things done ' even if they are not the right things ' because party and personal survival come first. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Theresa May just wants to get things done ' even if they are not the right things ' because party and personal survival come first. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Fighting for greater equality of opportunity for women at work should be the priority, writes Brian Monteith

When I read the Prime Minister’s article in the Telegraph about Britain’s so-called gender pay gap I had to check the date. Was it an April Fool, had she really fallen for such an absurd and dangerous fallacy? Unfortunately it was April 3, not April 1; it was not a spoof, not a prank – our Prime Minister has indeed fallen for the latest collectivist con hook, line and sinker.

There are many types of Conservatives; patrician, authoritarian, libertarian, blue-collar and some who don’t appear conservative at all, but May comes over as essentially a managerial politician, a sort of Jack McConnell of the Tory party. McConnell in a skirt; it’s not a good look, as we know from his time at a fashion show in New York. Like McConnell, May just wants to get things done – even if they are not the right things – because party and personal survival come first.

The Prime Minister’s support for shaming companies who have a high “gender pay gap” is typical of a Conservative who is defined more by what she is against than what she believes in. Believing that people of the same abilities but different genders should be paid the same for doing the same or similar work is a mainstream Conservative position. Conservatives should believe in equality before the law, and it is illegal to pay men and women differently for doing the same or similar jobs.

Supporting the shaming of companies that have done nothing morally or legally wrong is not a Conservative position – yet by encouraging the use of a published gender pay gap to reveal companies who rank “worst” May is attacking unfairly the reputation of outstanding businesses. Indeed many of the companies that appear to have a high gender pay gap are in this position because they are recruiting women, something for which they should be commended, not condemned and ridiculed.

We should thank the work of the tireless Kate Andrews and her assistants at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) who took on the task of debunking the gender pay gap statistics and applied the sword of truth to many of those on the radio and television who think them important. The IEA paper on the subject (available on its website) is required reading but let me draw on a number of Andrews’ findings.

The gender pay gap is compiled by taking the average male and female pay at British companies that employ more than 250 people. Companies that have large workforces of one particular gender in a low or high paid position will statistically deliver a gender pay gap even though they pay men and women the same money for doing the same job.

The example of easyJet, the British low cost airline, demonstrates the Prime Minister’s misunderstanding perfectly. EasyJet reported its mean hourly pay gap as 51.7 per cent in January 2018, leading to the assumption that it practises sex discrimination – but the truth is quite different.

Most of the jobs in easyJet are cabin crew positions, of which women occupy 2002 or 69 per cent of them – on an average salary of £24,800 per annum. By comparison easyJet pilots account for 26 per cent of positions, of which 86 or 6 per cent are held by women, on an average salary of £92,400 a year.

EasyJet reports that in their respective roles female cabin crew and female pilots earn 100 per cent of what their male equivalents 
earn. It is the high number of women employed in the company as cabin crew, and the relatively small number of women employed as pilots, that accounts for the average male and female earnings being different, delivering the headline pay gap figure of 51.7 per cent.

Not only is the gender pay gap a highly misleading statistical outcome of comparing onions with carrots, easyJet is actually an aviation industry exemplar for it employs roughly the same percentage of female pilots as are registered in the UK and 3 per cent higher than the industry average. It already has its own “Amy Johnson Initiative” with a target of 20 per cent new entrant cadet pilots being female by 2020.

Anyone, including the Prime Minister, should be able to see the perverse incentives that the manner in gathering the gender pay gap statistics encourages. The easiest way for easyJet to reduce the pay gap is not to recruit more women as pilots (as the training is harder and longer to bring change) but to employ fewer women for cabin crew and increase the number of male stewards (the training is easier and quicker and can deliver change to the statistics quickly). Such a policy would lower the average salary of male workers in easyJet and so reduce the gender pay gap. It would, of course, mean fewer women in employment – but easyJet could point to improved pay gap figures and the Prime Minister would not be in a position to complain.

If such a perverse incentive was copied across the British workforce, the impact of the gender pay gap and its adherents campaigning about it will be fewer women being employed, fewer part-time jobs being offered (or at least offered to women, who dominate that sector). Such a possibility could be the outcome sought by fashion retailers, who use predominantly female staff.

The Prime Minister should never have put herself at the front of this mistaken and misleading campaign. We have a Queen, a female Prime Minister (again), a female Leader of the House, a female First Minister in Scotland (and until recently a female First Minister in Northern Ireland), a female leader of the Scottish Conservative Party (again), a female President of the Supreme Court and a female leader of the House of Lords. Glass ceilings have undoubtedly been shattered and there are laws ensuring equal pay. Shaming companies who are actually doing their best to help advance women across their positions and pay grades is a gross misjudgment.

What is required is fighting for greater equality of opportunity, which requires equal access to education – and, for mothers, greater access to childcare.