Equal Pay for ‘Equal Work’ will not help Women

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Recent reporting on equal pay has taken as given the concept of equal work. In the future work place, this idea simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, the focus will be on value and that will be a far more helpful mechanism to address gender discrimination.

Like many other arguments about equal pay, the recent BBC stories and Carrie Gracie’s appearance before a Parliamentary Committee have relied upon the idea of equal work. This view of the World is one in which people sit side by side, being given the same tasks, taking the same amount of time to do them, and producing the same outputs to the same standard. Perhaps in the most basic of all roles, there is a possibility that scenario could play out. Once you are into anything more sophisticated or nuanced however, this way of thinking completely collapses.

Any people manager will be able to tell you which of their employees they would rather keep and which they would rather let go. Some people are more productive, others contribute more to a productive atmosphere, others are full of potential whilst others have peaked. These characteristics can be impossible to quantify or build into any kind of transparent performance related pay system. Nevertheless, different people are adding different levels of value to the organisation; they are not doing ‘the same jobs’ as each other.

The reason that accepting that people add different levels of value, and therefore should be paid differently, is vital is because it unlocks ways of thinking that will truly make not only quality jobs, but senior jobs, available to women. The fact that quality jobs and senior jobs are not regularly offered on part-time, flexible, job share or other sophisticated bases is down entirely to this same unhelpful mind set of ‘equal work’. The equal work mind set doesn’t at all focus on the individual, it focuses on a simplistic idea of identity that 1=1. This means that having somebody 5 days a week is better than having somebody 3 days a week. It stands to reason. Except it doesn’t.

I am in no doubt at all that a great person working 3 days a week in a senior role will add far more value than a mediocre person working 5 days a week. I’m not interested in a blind, abstracted notion of ‘what a job requires’ I’m interested in what a specific individual can do for an organisation. It is by taking this approach that suddenly women who want to balance home and work life, men with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities or anybody else who can’t meet rigid generic role requirements become eligible for every kind of role.

Any system which routinely results in women being paid less than men is wrong. But clinging on to this fantasy of ‘equal work’ will hold us back from the transformative thinking that will truly value everybody’s unique contributions and will continue to exclude so many from the top jobs.

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