Women’s pay – bridging the gap

[Image] Women were paid lower wages for field work during medieval times.
(Image: Mahan.wonkwang.ac.kr)

Lindiwe Magana
Media relations manager
+27 11 797 5042
Jonathan Yudelowitz
Leadership consultant
Yudelowitz Shannon & Associates
+27 11 648 3574

Educated children help the nation grow
Businesswomen leaving a legacy
Women taking SA forward

Yvonne Fontyn

Even after the UN has passed resolutions, countries have rewritten their constitutions and companies have put procedures in place to ensure women receive the same pay as men for the same work, the gender pay gap still exists.

Not only that – following the 2007 economic crisis, it has widened. “Globally, the gap in unemployment- and employment-to-population ratios was moving towards convergence before the crisis,” says the Global Employment Trends for Women 2012 study by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The crisis reversed this trend in the hardest-hit regions, destroying 13 million jobs for women, it pointed out.

The roots for the way “women’s work” and “men’s work” are perceived and the differences in pay are complicated and go way back. Traditionally, work that females perform has been less valued than that of males. During the late medieval period in England, for example, female field workers were paid less than their male counterparts.

“For reaping, a man could get eight pence a day. For the same task, women would get five pence,” says Chris Trueman of the History Learning Site. “For hay making, men would earn six pence a day while women got four pence. In a male-dominated society, no woman would openly complain about this disparity.”

Men at war, women at work

Even the daughters of aristocratic families were not formally educated, and up until World War 1 most respectable middle-class Englishmen would never send their daughters out to work. It was only when the country’s young men were drafted into the army in 1914 that employers began to consider women for employment.

During that war, says University of the Witwatersrand historian Dr CI Hamilton, young women brought in to the British Admiralty to replace male clerks who had been called up, received lower pay for the same duties. However, various male observers later concluded that the women had not done as efficient a job as the men. Among the reasons was that many of them had to leave promptly at knock-off time because “their mothers wanted them home early”. But many of the women who came from middle and upper-middle class homes “stayed the course, played the game with the supervisors, did the work well, and – something the observers did not mention – many of them served without pay”, says Hamilton.

Today, nearly a hundred years later, women face many of the same challenges. In South Africa, transport after dark is often not safe, females perform a larger proportion of the unskilled work available and they generally have more duties at home. But most work is no longer manual – it doesn’t take muscles to operate a computer, stand behind a counter or work in a lab – so why the pay discrepancy?

Even at executive level, female bosses are paid less. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers released in July 2013 found that 22% of male chief executives were paid in the upper quartile of the market, while only 2.5% of females were paid at the same level. However, most women who reach chief executive level are highly skilled at negotiating, comments Derick Boshard of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, and are less likely to settle for less than market value. Also, they do thorough research about the remuneration packages they anticipate when applying for jobs and promotions. But for those lower down the ladder, it is more difficult. “Women [in South Africa] on average earn 28.1% less than men as measured through taxable income,” the PwC study found. The world average gender pay gap is about 18%, according to Mywage.co.za, an online labour market research tool.

Maternity and child-rearing

Clearly, one of the main reasons women do not climb the corporate ladder as quickly as men is maternity and child-rearing – the so-called child penalty – and re-entry is often problematic. In countries where maternity leave is the norm, enabling mothers to take long leave when giving birth and caring for their babies, women are able to return to work and take up their previous jobs. “In these countries, no effect of child-rearing on the gender pay gap is noticed,” says Mywage.

Other reasons for the pay disparity include personal characteristics such as level of education and subjects studied – many women go for softer subjects in the arts and humanities rather than maths, science or commerce; number of children; marital status; and race. The job type also affects whether a man or a woman will be taken on – because they often have more responsibility regarding child care and running the home, more women work in part-time and temporary positions. These generally do not offer benefits such as medical aid or a pension scheme, and few opportunities for training or promotion.

Other low-paid job types where more females are employed include cleaning, welfare, education, health, catering and clerical work. Particular skills can also be underpaid. Interpersonal skills, physical and emotional care and concentration, for example, at which females generally excel, are valued less than the skills found in traditionally male occupations. The latter include leadership, technical insight and heavy physical work. The finance sector is particularly guilty of paying women less than their male counterparts for the same work, says Mywage.

Indeed, sector is a significant factor – there are fewer women in technology and science, for example. “Women are concentrated in a smaller number of sectors/professions with less value and pay,” says Mywage. This is known as horizontal segregation. In vertical segregation, “fewer women are employed in well-paid jobs and they face obstacles in their career advancement”; this is the so-called glass ceiling.

The size of the organisation also plays a role: a large, profitable company presumably has more capacity for training and gender transformation. Whether there is a union is important, too. According to WageIndicator.org, which does salary checks and comparisons, trade union membership has a positive influence on the gender pay gap because there are often collective agreements in place regarding equal pay and working conditions.


Policies on a national level or within organisations clearly can make a difference. Research shows that the implementation of the ILO’s Equal Remuneration Convention of 1951 (No 100), which South Africa ratified in 2000, has had positive effects in some countries. However, governments are also responsible for removing inequalities in society through improving education and opportunities for females. And ratification of the convention does not always mean women will benefit: the United States, where the gender pay gap is narrowing, is not a signatory but Azerbaijan is, with a gap as high as 46%. Paraguay has a 4% gap, according to Mywage.

Countries known to be actively addressing women’s empowerment included Kenya, the Philippines, Norway, Sweden and Finland, said PwC. However, “Mexico, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Chile, Japan and Saudi Arabia were the worst countries in the battle of the sexes”. The United States was joined by Brazil, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Australia as nations where the gender pay gap was narrowing. China was awarding top jobs to more women, the PwC survey found.

Individual companies can do a lot to help: where there is adequate and effective training, collective wage bargaining, industrial relations, parental leave policies, child care and elder care, these all play a role in helping all staff render their best service to their employer.

The gender pay gap is not just an abstract concept; it has a tangible effect on people’s lives. Especially where a woman is a single parent or the sole breadwinner, her whole family is affected. “The pay gap contributes to poor living conditions [and] poor nutrition and thus makes the millennium development goal to eradicate poverty and hunger more distant,” says Mywage.

There has been progress, however, which should be acknowledged and celebrated. According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development note on South Africa, since the mid-1990s the participation of women in the labour force has increased by 38%, boosting overall employment levels. The organisation adds, however, that “further improvements in women’s labour market outcomes are needed. Women’s employment too often remains either within the traditional female occupations or within the domestic (97%) and farming sectors. They are often concentrated within positions which are low paying and which have high rates of turnover.”


Churn rate is a known deterrent to career success and women wanting to increase their chances of a well-paid job with a good employer should be cautious about changing jobs. In addition, Mywage suggests:

  • More education generally means a higher salary overall;
  • Choose a sector with well-paid jobs;
  • Work full-time;
  • Take advantage of opportunities for promotion or training;
  • Negotiate around your salary and pay rises; and,
  • Join a company with good collective agreements regarding equal pay.

The fear of not being taken seriously in the workplace can be inhibiting and make one behave in either an overconfident or underconfident manner. When negotiating a starting salary or a raise, says executive coach Jonathan Yudelowitz, “don’t try to come across as a lead-from-the-front, type-A person as this almost certainly will be construed as aggression. Negotiation is a subtle process. First, work on your own authority, your own presence. In the interview, establish a rapport with the person interviewing you. Let them know what you know and who you know, inform them of your network and track record – but don’t overuse it or you will be a bore.”

With more measures being put in place to ensure women get a fair deal, it is a good time to strike a better bargain.