Time to Demystify Equal Pay and Gender Pay Gaps

by | Nov 18, 2021

author profile picture

About Shauna Olney

Shauna Olney is the former Chief of the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. She studied law at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and as a postgraduate at the University of Oxford. During her over 25 years at the ILO, Ms Olney promoted equality at work from a range of perspectives. She led the ILO’s Women at Work Centenary Initiative, which generated an important body of new research and data, promoting a transformative agenda for gender equality. In this context, the work on violence and harassment supported the adoption of the first international treaty on the topic (Convention No. 190). She was also instrumental in the establishment of the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC). Ms Olney is a member of the Advisory Council of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Kings College, London. She has also been elected by the UN General Assembly to be a Member of the International Civil Service Commission from 2022-2025. She was named by Apolitical as one of the 100 most influential people in gender policy (2019), and also received the Gallup Global Impact Award (2020). She has authored and co-authored a number of publications on equality and non-discrimination, including “Gender Equality in the COVID-19 era and beyond’ in Essays on Equality (GIWL, King’s College, London); “Migrant Workers and the Right to Non-discrimination and Equality” in Migrants at Work (OUP); “A Better Future for Women at Work” (University of Oxford Human Rights Hub Journal); Equal Pay: An introductory guide (ILO); ‘The ILO, gender equality, and trade unions’ in Making globalization work for women (Suny Series, Praxis).

More than two decades ago, one of my colleagues, a well-respected lawyer, declared with conviction that in countries where seniority was a priority, equal pay was not relevant. I was baffled that anyone could think equal pay was only important in countries where there were no other competing ‘priorities’. Fast-forward to last week, when I was told (by another well-respected lawyer) that there was equal pay in their organisation since they had a uniform pay scale.

While no one is now (openly) saying to me that equal pay is not important, what is clear is that much remains misunderstood.  Different pay scales for women and men are a relic of the past (though not the distant past), yet gender pay gaps remain. The concept of ‘work of equal value’ has been especially difficult for many to grasp, particularly the idea that it permits such a broad scope of comparison and can encompass work of an entirely different nature.

But these concepts are not new. Over one hundred years ago, the international community declared ‘the principle that men and women should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value’ to be ‘of special and urgent importance’. These words feature in Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919, which established the International Labour Organization (ILO).

After World War II, this principle became enshrined in the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100). Women had been on the front line of production during the war, and certainly proved the value of their work in all types of jobs. This fundamental right was later reflected in other international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Both Convention No. 100 and CEDAW are highly ratified, but gender pay gaps are closing very slowly, and stagnating or even increasing in some contexts.

What needs to be done to move from rights to reality? It is time to demystify equal pay and make gender pay gaps more visible and understandable.

Pay transparency, in particular pay gap reporting, is essential. While it has become more common, it is still limited. There needs to be sufficient granularity of data – it is not enough to look at only basic wages: the whole compensation package needs to examined, including productivity bonuses, share of profits, and other benefits with a monetary value, whether in cash or in kind.

It is also important to go beyond aggregates when looking at pay gaps, and to look at different jobs and different parts of the pay scale – what jobs are women and men holding in the company or sector, and where are they in the pay scale. Glass ceilings, sticky floors, leaky pipelines, glass walls, and glass cliffs are often reflected in the data if it is sufficiently detailed.

Accountability is also key. Equal pay laws generally place the onus on the individual employee to prove unequal pay. It is often a long and costly process, and provides little motivation for employers to address the underlying issues. Equal pay reporting—for instance as seen in Iceland—shifts the onus onto the employer to show that the pay system is fair, and to make changes if it is not.

The COVID crisis has shown that the ‘market’ is not valuing crucial work – work predominately undertaken by women – fairly, and this has put us all at risk. It has brought out that investment in care work, including well-paid jobs in health, education and social work, is not a luxury, but is essential to the survival of economies and societies.

After the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009, there were significant cuts in public funding for health care and education, impacting particularly women’s wages. Memories are short, and the risk of an increase in the gender pay gap is a real one. But if we want a better and more equal society coming out of the COVID crisis, and to be more resilient in the face of future crises, pay equity needs to become a reality. We have already waited 100 years – surely that is long enough.





Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment