[SCMP Column] Discriminating against women

April 14, 2018

In my early life, one of the big (but friendly) arguments I used to have with my ex-wife, who as then responsible for equal opportunities policy in the very-politically-correct London borough of Camden, was over her unflagging bias towards gender inequality – in short, reducing discrimination against women in the workplace.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe she was doing excellent and invaluable work. But it peeved me that the same enthusiasm was not being focused on racial discrimination, or discrimination against homosexuals, or ageism.

As I watched the media frenzy in the UK last week over what was said to be the world’s most comprehensive examination of the pay gap between men and women at work, I recognised how wrong I was to have challenged her. Here we are, 40 years later, and still we are wrestling with the very most basic forms of discrimination against women. Why is it so hard to shift cultural prejudices, no matter how self-evident the need? Despite the progress being made by socialist-controlled Camden all those decades ago, for most of Britain – and for much of the world – the needle of prejudice has shifted barely at all – whether for women, ethnic minorities, or gays.

The UK survey findings were sobering, suggesting that 88 per cent of women work for a company with a pay gap that favours men, with half working for a company that pays men at least 9 per cent more than women. Only 11 per cent of women work in companies that pay them equally or better.

Apparently the worst sectors are construction, finance and insurance, and the education sector, where the gap is 20 per cent or more.

The gender-based pay bias is not simply due to women being paid less for the same work – though embarrassing evidence from within the hallowed BBC suggests that this may still be widespread. More than anything else, it is due to a bigger proportion of men rising to the highest levels of a company, not just because men are being preferred for promotion over women, but because women’s careers are often sabotaged by the need to take time off to raise families (or care for infirm elderlies).

But before I completely capitulate on my argument that discrimination covers many more segments of the community than women, I recall fascinating US government research unveiled last year on pay gaps linked with ethnicity as well as gender. It discovered that the Asian American community saw the worst male-female pay gaps – with Asian women earning 20 per cent less than Asian men – and the narrowest gap between Black/African Americans (just 10 per cent less). But guess what? Asian American men were the US’s best-paid group, with average annual incomes of US$63,000, and Asian American women were better paid (at an average US$50,800) than any other segment of the population except White males (who earned an average US$56,400).

In short, Asian women in the US may face pay discrimination compared to Asian men, but compared to every other group in the society – male or female – they today fare relatively well.

By the way, that same US research showed that pay discrimination between men and women gets worse as we age. The average 34-year-old American woman earns just 11 per cent less than her male counterpart. But at the age of 64, she earns on average 26 per cent less. Age discrimination is alive and well.

But let us not make light of these UK survey findings. They provide powerful evidence in support of extensive change. Combine this with the recent awful evidence of sexual abuse and predation in the workplace, and there is perhaps at last a basis for some serious changes in corporate behaviour.

The irony here is that the likely benefits of eliminating gender-based discrimination have been self-evident for quite a long time. Statistics abound on how companies with better gender balances provide better and more consistent performance.
But there are other important reasons why our failure to incentivise equal female participation in the workforce is powerfully counterproductive. For a quick summation of some of the evidence, you can do worse than browse chapter 3 of Joseph Coughlin’s “Longevity Economy”, titled “The Future is Female”.

We need women in senior management for many reasons, but perhaps most simply because as our societies age it is women that are becoming clearly the biggest consumer group in our communities. As Joe Coughlin at MIT’s AgeLab has noted, in the US, the over-50s control 83 per cent of all household wealth, and in 2015 spent US$5.6 trillion – compared with US$4.9 trillion spent by the under-50s. Women dominate spending decisions in this part of the population not just because they account for the majority of the over-50s, but because they are by far the predominant consumer decision-makers.

For this reason, Joe Coughlin says tongue-in-cheek that every company’s “Chief Consumption Officer” should be a middle-aged woman. That is a message powerfully directed towards Silicon Valley, which is predominantly male, and predominantly under 30. He points to epic product cock-ups that would never have been made with more women in more senior positions.

Take” Apple Health”, Apple’s first comprehensive health tracking app which had been on the market for more than two years before they realised it omitted to track when women were menstruating, hence missing the single most important monthly blip in a woman’s health metrics. Or take the high-tech life sciences group that was a leader in making artificial hearts – except that they were designed too big to fit into the body of 80 per cent of women.

Many difficult and controversial things still need to be done to make sure we capture the full potential of women in the workplace. Many are being discussed, and some are even being acted upon as I write, but some have not even begun to register in the public mind. For me, the most obvious and pressing of these is the need to revamp our education systems to enable women in their 40s, after children have risen into their teens, to reskill systematically for what in future is likely to be a further 30-year career.

So many things still to be done, even after foundational work in Camden back in the 1970s. At least we have a massive new UK data-set to drive the mission forward.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view? Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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