Sharing the information on your salary slip is a taboo and most people would not open a dinner table discussion by laying bare the details of their monthly paycheque. So how can you really be sure that you are earning the same as your colleague doing the same work as you? And if you’re a woman, how can you be sure that you are earning the same as the men working in your team?
These questions often cross our minds but we are not sure how to go about finding out more without raising eyebrows. The Women in the Workplace research programme at the University of Johannesburg sets out to answer these and other gender pay-related questions.
The size of the gap
All too often we remain passive when faced with the unknown. Remuneration is one such unknown. What we do know is that there is a definite gender pay gap. The size of the gap depends on, among other factors, the country, industry, job role and level.
The South African gender pay gap is estimated, on average, to be between 15%-17%. This implies that a South African woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary that he would earn in a year.
If the gap persists, a South African woman would never catch up with her male colleague. Ultimately she loses out on pension and other benefits that are coupled to her basic salary. Other than the financial losses that she incurs, the emotional fairness of the pay gap is quite difficult to accept. Employers are benefiting unduly from a historic system of undervaluing women’s skills and workplace contributions.
On average, South African services industries are better attuned to the needs of women. These sectors have a high percentage of women employees. Mining and other heavy industries lag behind in terms of gender pay equity. Salaries in government are, on average, better for both men and women than similar comparable jobs in the private sector.
How does South Africa compare with other countries? It is difficult to draw direct comparisons because of major differences between pay practices and legislative environments. But data from the International Labour Organisation on global wage gaps show they range from between 4% and 36% or more. Among the developed countries, the US has the widest gap. South Africa is in the same region as Vietnam, Denmark, Spain and Italy.
Steps have been taken in South Africa to remedy the situation. The Employment Equity Act sets out the principle of equal pay for equal value. The burden now rests on human resource management practitioners to uncover potential cases of pay inequity, and to address these with innovative remedies.
What’s behind the gender gap
The reasons for the gender pay gap are multiple. Some would argue that it would be impossible to eradicate gender pay differences completely. Issues such as the perceived number of hours that women work and the value that is placed on their labour, like nurturing and being supportive, are not regarded as having a high economic value.
Women are often seen to be less loyal to the company and more likely to exit the workplace in their childbearing years. Employers may therefore perceive the long-term value that a woman would add to an organisation as lower than that of a man who does not have care obligations outside the workplace.
Men are therefore paid more than a woman to ensure that the company gets a greater return on the investment made in the development of an individual.
Don’t be shy to ask
Although it does remain difficult and highly technical to prove pay discrimination, it is heartening that a proper legal framework exists. But the interpretation of equal value in pay is sticky and uncovering gender pay differences in the same job type that also provides the same value for an employer is quite complex.
It all starts with the identification of a comparator, a person in a job that you think is the same as yours, substantially the same as yours, or a job that is adding the same value to the company as yours. You have to prove that the difference in pay is based on unfair discrimination. The Employment Equity Act allows for greater freedom to interpret instances that would constitute such discrimination.
You have the right to ask your employer about your salary in relation to other positions in your department or organisation. Your company may have a policy directive that precludes you from sharing your salary data with colleagues. If this is the case you should observe the policy. But you are still at liberty to discuss your salary with your manager, the head of payroll or human resources.
You are also at liberty to ask friends in other companies about their salaries and to investigate what your type of job gets paid in other workplaces. Knowledge is truly power and when it comes to pay, you should be careful of blindly trusting an organisational system.
Professor Bosch is the editor of the 2015 Women’s Report of the SA Board for People Practices.
Anita Bosch receives funding from the University of Johannesburg.
Authors: The Conversation