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Why Are Women Still Paid Less Than Men?

Updated on July 10, 2020
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Michael has been teaching social science economics and ICT since the 1980's.

Equal Pay for Women what went wrong?

The Equal Pay Act has been in force since 1963 in the USA and 1970 in the UK.

So why are women still paid less than their male equivalent?

Whenever we consider the economic rights of women, or try to discuss the women's rights movement. It raises many questions, and it has to be said. The hackles of some people.

Usually the same kind of people who still believe, that women should be in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.

There is of course a wide variety of excuses for this continued inequality. Much it is argued, can depend on the type of business, that they are working in. This is nonsense of course.

Relying on tips to make a living

Tipping is actually subsidizing Employers. They should be paying staff a living wage. A fair days pay for a fairs days work
Tipping is actually subsidizing Employers. They should be paying staff a living wage. A fair days pay for a fairs days work | Source

Women in Politics

Some occupations still have very few women in high ranking positions. Banking and Finance and the financial services sectors, for example, have very few women at the very top.

Political careers for women are marginal at best, and still almost non existent in the British Conservative party.

Although they cannot stop crowing that they were the first to have a female Prime Minister.(1925-2013) who was in power for three terms (1979-1991). What they fail to mention, is that Mrs Thatcher did nothing to improve the position of women in 'society'.

In a recent (2013) House of Commons select committee meeting. The failure of any significant change, in the gender of the political makeup, of Britain's Parliament, was hardly mentioned,

The fact that inequality in pay rates still existed for woman, even amongst Lawyers (7%) who were still being under-paid, was acknowledged but not discussed further.

Some of these highly qualified women were more than a little surprised to find that they were paid less.

Lawyers we would hope, should know better? Ironically this committee was chaired by a woman. More about this later.

Some Good News

Teaching is one of the few professions, where equal opportunities policies, have actually helped women to make significant progress. They do earn the same as male teachers.

In some countries women outnumber men in teaching, in other countries, education for women is seen as vital for the future development of these nations.

The medical field is still highly unbalanced with most doctors still being male and nurses predominantly female.

Women Only Vote

Are you treated equally at work?

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Very Few Women earn a Living Wage

A few celebs and the odd HR management type make money. In these jobs some women are in the higher paid grades. The entertainment industry has seen some major advances for women.

Women in the workplace, was parodied perfectly by several movies in the 1980s. Dolly Parton' 9 to 5 movie (1980). These movie's highlighted this continued inequity. Private Benjamin, (Goldie Hawn 1980) The Baby Boom movie (Diane Keaton 1987). While these films portrayed hope that things were changing, what has really happened.

The above occupations however, do not represent most ordinary women's experience of work. Most women cannot earn enough to keep themselves even in the very basics of life.

Where do most real Women Work?

The vast bulk of women workers, are working in sectors of the economy, that pay some of the lowest wages, in the developed world. Retail, restaurant and shop work.

Most have probably never heard of the feminist movement or equal rights for women. And could care less, when they are just trying to survive, and put food on the table.

Women's suffrage has always been a middle class women's preoccupation. With the working class women, manning the barricades when push came to shove.

As in the Matchgirls strike of 1888.

Equal Pay Act 1970

Equal rights for women, has led to the current situation, where there is no restriction, on the work that women can do.

In the real world, the work that most women actually do, can cover a wide range from, working behind the counter in a bookmakers shop, to answering the phone in a call centre. To waiting on tables, office cleaning and thousands of other tasks.

What they share, is that they are all generally menial, and usually low paid. Not the most glamorous of occupations at all, except maybe in the movies as mentioned above.

All of these types of work, are poorly paid, have very unsociable hours, little in the way of promotion prospects, health benefits or medical insurance.

Equal opportunities legislation has made little impact on these industries. If you ask staff why are women still paid less in these type of business. You will get an answer straight out of the 1950s. 'Women just work for pin money' or 'Need a bit of extra cash' The assumption is that they are not the main bread winner.

This is the reality of most real women's, working lives.

So what is the real reason for this disparity of work choice and income levels. It has been argued by some, in the comments section of the original question, that:-

(1) Women leave the workplace to have children.

(2) Women physically, cannot do the same kind of heavy lifting work as men.

(3) Women are not as ambitious as men. They follow different career paths. Which just happen to pay less.

(4) Women are less qualified than men in general.

Historically women have been disadvantaged due to many reasons. Paternalism is one of many historical excuses, for women's previous and current position. Let's be honest here. The above are all excuses not explanations. Equal rights exist but they need implementation.

Womens Rights Movement

Equality for Women. The Law

The Suffragettes or womens rights movement, and latterly the feminist movement, fought for many years to get laws changed. To make women equal to men in terms of property rights, amongst other things. (see timeline below for details)

To have the right, to the same wage for the same work. And the right to vote. As recent as 1907 in the UK, widows and unmarried women, for the first time, were allowed to stand for local council elections.

It was as late as 1918 that women were able to stand for Parliament. And those women over 30 were given the right to vote. It wasn't until, the UK Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed that equal rights in terms of pay, were conferred on women in Britain.

Equality for women had arrived. Or so many thought. The act was only introduced, after the women machinists at the Ford motor company, went on strike in 1968. The Suffragettes would be appalled if they knew what was happening today. 100 years after their fight for equality

New Rights and Changes in the Law were Meant to Uplift Women

The point is that the law is the law. If a woman finds herself being treated unfairly by an employer, there is now a legal route to take to rectify this. Equal rights really do exist.

How many women take this route? Not many, and why, because they may feel, that they will be seen as a troublemaker, and this will adversely affect their future job prospects.

This may tell us more about women in the workforce, than it does about 'their' perceptions of their true entitlement. So they keep quiet and put up with it, and nothing changes. It is safe to assume that the Suffragettes, would be pretty mad at this turn of events.

Some high profile cases have come to court. The women involved are made to look like 'they' are the 'problem' and are in the wrong? In a tough economic climate, people are scared to rock the boat. Without challenge, nothing changes.

Average Salaries in UK tell the Story. (Data Circa 2012)

Average UK Salary Range For Women £17,923 - £ 32,786. Just 40% of Women Earn This.

Average UK Salary Range For Men £22,353 - £ 44,622. 60% of Men Earn This.


42 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Equality for women has still not come to pass. The Suffragettes pushed open the door. This generation it seems, have failed to walk through it.

Definition of Equality

There are at least two ways of looking at this ongoing inequality.

We could say that since the law was changed and women got the vote. Women have indeed come very far in a short while (less than a 100 years) For example from the same era. Slavery. was a totally legal business up until 1833, when it was banned (The Slavery Abolition Act 1833) in most countries.

Even though slavery is illegal, it is still practised in many countries today. Who's is at fault? The slave owners, the slaves, or the people that derive benefit from their enforced labour.

In many countries being a slave is a traditional form of existence. A way of life that many are born into. Their definition of equality, may be different to our view in the western world.

It may be Unpalatable, but it is still a Fact.

If they were not 'enslaved', they may die from starvation. From lack of the essentials needed to survive. i.e. shelter, food and water. This sounds similar to the arguments for the slave owners of the USA before that countries Civil War.

The fact is that we hear these comments, coming from the mouths of these modern day slaves. Is no accident.

The child labourers in the sports shoe factory sweat shops, still have to survive. It is probable that they would prefer not to be working in these conditions, but they have to do what work is available.

They are going through the same growing pains as every industrializing nation has done before. Their definition of equality is quite different, if it exists at all. You have to have the 'idea' of equality before you can demand it yourself.

Advanced Societies Definition of Equality

In the developed world, we like to think, that we would not tolerate slavery. Yet people support this trade by buying goods, manufactured under slave labour conditions.

Let us not forget the sex trade, where human beings are still bought and sold. From Pole Dancing To Prostitution. What is the difference, if you are a slave?

The point is that laws can be changed. We can all agree that certain things 'should' be everyone's 'rights', because they are just the right thing to do. In sociological terms. The above is a 'normative statement'. What we would like to happen. What we think, is the right thing to do.

We do not Live in a Normative World

How we would like it to be, compared to how it really is. Can be a huge difference. Observations based on what is 'actually' happening are known as 'positive statements'. What is going on in reality.

Real Change Takes Time

Attitudes can be Slow to Change

Just because the law has changed, doesn't mean that humans will change their behaviours attitudes and values. In many cases, they only stop or change their illegal behaviour, if they are caught and punished.

What has this to do with, why are women still paid less than men? Everything.

The law is there to ensure that we all, 'do the right thing'. Humans as we know from history, will do whatever they want, in the absence of law, and sometimes even when law exist, they still abuse and ignore it.

Equal Rights legislation, like Anti Slavery Laws, are already on the statute books. Women simply need to start using Equal Rights & Pay Law. Could it be that easy?

Next time you buy those cheap knock off designer clothes, perfume or whatever. Remember your purchase may be keeping someone else in slavery.

If you stop buying these products, will they starve? It is a dilemma. How does this fit with your definition of equality.

We could say that women haven't come far enough 'it's been almost a 100 years already' How long does society need, to make significant changes to attitudes.

Are women deliberately excluded from certain profession, business's and the highest positions in the land, simply because they are women.

As mentioned above, we all know that many low paid occupations are predominantly staffed by women. Check out clerks, shop assistants etc.

Technological Unemployment

Along with many former predominantly male occupations. We have lost millions of former well paid work, that women used to dominate. Typing, secretarial, telephone operators, and postal workers, were occupations that were well paid, compared to today's job market.

If you were a typist you had to be fast and accurate. Companies used to employ whole buildings full of 1000's of copy typists. Now all of those women have been replaced, by one person on a word-processor and a database of names and addresses.

The same is true for so many industries. The work has been 'automated'. Very little human input is now required.

Although many formerly male industries have vanished, so too, have those of women. We are living in a period of rapid change, which has led to widespread technological unemployment.

Technological Unemployment affected Women too

Propaganda posters

Public domain
Public domain | Source
Public domain
Public domain | Source

Women were seen as a second army of labour during WWII

Poster by J Howard Miller
Poster by J Howard Miller | Source

Are you a woman that has worked outside of the home

See results

Second Class Citizens

In Economic terms. Women have always been seen as:- A Reserve Army of Labour. Available to work, if the need arises.

This aspect of the role of women in the workforce, is most noticeable in wartime.

During the second world war, there was a shortage of labour. The men were off in the military. Women were encouraged to 'do their bit' for the war effort.

The propaganda was such, that many women felt guilty, if they did not contribute by working in the following industries. Many of these jobs were denied to them before.

Farming, Mining, Ship building, Weapons factories (Guns,Tanks, Bullets & Bomb making) House building, Plumbing, Electricians,Carpenters. Bus Driving, Train Diving.

Basically every single occupation. Traditionally associated with Men.

When the war came to an end. The men returned to find women, who had been earning the same money as them, who quite liked the idea of having some money. These women liked their new found financial freedom, and did not want to return to the kitchen sink and penury.

The government realizing that there was not enough work to go around for the returning soldiers, then began producing reverse propaganda, aimed at women who were working. This propaganda was designed to make women feel the following:-

They were not 'feminine' if they were not at home, to cook for their husband.

Their children were running wild, because 'they' were being selfish 'by working'?

They were loose and out of control. Which could lead to hysteria.

They were second class citizens, only useful for housekeeping and child-rearing duties.

Astonishingly, these ideas still prevail today. How many times have we heard the lament. Usually from some celebrity with one child, and two nannies.

'You can't have it all, you know. A job and a family'

Many women still feel guilty, if they hold down a full time job and have children. As if it is an impossibility to achieve both. On the other hand. Many women have to have a job and a family, and do both perfectly well.

It was always, and still is common for working class women, to have full time jobs even though usually poorly paid. It contributed to the household budget. Many households today, are headed by a woman alone.

The vast majority of women, have never had the luxury of sitting at home, or choosing a career. Women had to work to help support their families. They have been treated like second class citizens for so many years. It has become their norm.

Why do women work? Because they have to. They need that income. It is not 'pin money' as it is euphemistically called. It is essential to the finances of the family unit. In some cases women can earn more than their male partners. Although this is still a rarity.

Men feel this Pressure

Many men want to be good providers, husbands and fathers. Sometimes they too will take time off work to be with their children. this is still relatively rare. These men also pay the price in lost earnings, loss of promotions and careers derailed.


The original question asked in the forum generated some very interesting comments. The debate spawned many hubs.

Why are women still paid less than men?

The same, age old prejudices have emerged. The laws may have changed, but the values and attitudes of many people, it would seem have not changed much at all. Some people actually denied that this was the case i.e. ' that women are still paid less than men '

Some men responded with such antiquated ideas, it makes one wonder, if they have been living in a cave and totally missed the point.

Some women even defended the 'fact' that they should be paid less, as they couldn't physically do the same amount of heavy lifting as a man. Ironically these sound exactly like the protestations of second class citizens.

Having worked with a female plumber over 35 years ago. She worked as hard as any man and earned accordingly. The above excuses are a little lame.

So... why do 'you' think. Women are still paid less than men?

The Displacement of Women after WW II

Addendum Equal Rights for Women in UK Political Parties

There is an interesting and fundamental split in British politics, as far as women are concerned.

The Labour Party has always actively encouraged women from the earliest days of the movement. Increased women's participation in all forms of public life, has allowed the Labour party to push women to the forefront.

During elections, the Labour party actively puts women candidates, into seats that they know they have a strong chance of winning. i.e. seats that have been Labour strongholds for decades.

This has had the effect, of increasing the number of women Labour MPs in parliament to 20% of the overall party.

This has broken all previous records for women in politics in Britain. * So it is fair to say, that equal rights for women do exist, at least in the UK labour party, although they could do much better.

The Conservative Party or Tories

On the other hand the Conservative Party scandalously do the exact opposite. They put their women candidates into the least winnable seats.

The chance of them getting elected is so remote. It is pointless contesting the seat. The Conservative Party has not disclosed it reasons for this practice.

Equal rights for women it appears, do not apply, in the conservative party.

Although the Labour Party has been proactive in getting more women into politics. Labour's 20% female parliamentary members, while impressive still has a long way to go, when we consider that women make up over 52% of the UK population.

The conservatives on the other hand should be ashamed of themselves.

source Women in Parliament and Government Kathryn Keith and Feargal McGuinness

If our leaders cannot get it right, what chance has anyone else got.

These are the facts of economic life for women in the 21st century. Don't shoot the messenger

Parliament passed the Laws. Now it is up to Who?

Westminister Abbey:
Westminster Abbey, City of Westminster, London SW1P, UK

get directions


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