Unequal pay for women remains a norm in Western ‘liberal’ countries
Date of publication: 25 July, 2017
When the BBC published the salaries of its highest paid actors and presenters, female employees were shocked to learn they were systematically paid less than their male colleagues. Nearly fifty years after equal pay acts were passed in the UK and the US, gender pay disparities remain entrenched.
In my research, I compare civil and human rights in Middle East nations with the United States and other Western self-described “liberal societies”. A common flaw in the comparative literature is the Orientalist depictions of Middle East societies as illiberal and oppressive, particularly in the ways they treat women.
Western governments and their citizens frequently assume Arab and Muslim women are unique in facing gender discrimination. But pay inequality in the US and Europe is a troubling reminder that Western liberalism has also failed women.
|Recent high-profile cases remind us that, despite advancements in gender equality in education, pay disparities remain tenaciously entrenched|
Let’s look at some Western nations who proclaim their liberal values in comparison to countries in the Eastern and Southern hemispheres. In 2015, a female employee in the US was paid on average 80 cents for every one dollar earned by her similarly situated male colleague. In the UK, a woman is paid only 86 percent of her similarly situated male coworkers’ salaries. In France, women earn 15 to 20 percent less than their male coworkers.
Recent high-profile cases remind us that, despite advancements in gender equality in education, pay disparities remain tenaciously entrenched. Despite spending $150 million in diversity efforts, Google was ordered to release its pay records to the US Department of Labor because a preliminary investigation found the giant tech company was systemically discriminating against women in pay.
In the United Kingdom, the BBC pay records revealed large differences in pay between male and female journalists. In learning they were paid less than their male colleagues for the same work, forty-two women journalists issued a letter calling out the BBC for commenting that they would “‘sort’ the gender pay gap by 2020”.
“The BBC has known about the pay disparity for years,” they wrote. “We all want to go on the record to call upon you to act now.”
These news reports do not reveal any surprises. Pay inequality between women and men in the West has been well documented for decades.
|Men and women go to work every day knowing that on average the female employee gets paid less than her male colleague for the same work and with the same qualifications|
Such inequality lies in the normalisation of discriminatory practices buttressed by prevalent gender stereotypes. That is, women (and minorities) are frequently treated disparately, not necessarily from malicious intent, but because such underlying practices are “normal” within that particular society. Women are expected to be the primary caretakers of children, the nurturers of society and the family, and the gender presumed to work out of choice not necessity.
As a result, men and women go to work every day knowing that on average the female employee gets paid less than her male colleague for the same work and with the same qualifications. The inequality permeates the full spectrum of the labour force from the bottom to the top. Indeed, as demonstrated in the BBC case, many of these women are at the pinnacle of their careers as internationally recognised experts.
Pretexts and antiquated excuses abound as to why women are paid less. Women are not as committed to their careers as men. Women “choose” to stay home to take care of children, thereby forfeiting a career. Women’s salaries are supplemental sources of income to the man’s primary breadwinner role. These myths have been debunked in multiple studies; and yet continue to contribute to the deflation of women’s salaries.
Despite focusing on developing nations’ inequitable gender practices, citizens of Western societies do not seem as troubled with gender inequality at home. So instead of perpetuating Orientalist depictions of oppressed Arab women in need of saving from the outside, Western citizens should first seek change within their own countries.
Sahar Aziz is professor of law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers University Law School; and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. She is the author of The Muslim ‘Veil’ Post-9/11: Rethinking Women’s Rights and Leadership