Guest post: Jordan Peterson and the very idea of pay equality

Guest post by Maureen Brian.

Midnight on April 4th was the deadline for companies to submit their data on their gender pay gap, if any, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Then some editor at the BBC had the notion of inviting wannabee-famous Jordan Peterson to comment on the whole exercise for BBC Radio4 Today.

In the course of a very scrappy interview it became quite clear that he didn’t like it. Not one bit. Certain things, it would seem, are ordained by God – that people who work long hours are all men and thus should be paid a lot more just for being, that the bulk of child or elderly relative care must fall upon women, that a woman who takes a career break should expect to return in a more junior role, etc. He also implied that people who work fewer hours should expect to be paid a lower hourly rate even with the same qualifications and doing the same work – the example given was a physician in general practice. Also, the figures are crude but we’ll come back to that.

Let us begin at the beginning. Employment law changes in 1970, when Barbara Castle was the Secretary of State, made clear that we were en route to equal pay. The law making that mandatory came in 1975. A small fortune was then spent on lawyers, expensive lawyers, to find or create loopholes so that bosses didn’t have to worry about abiding by the law. Far too important to worry about that, old boy! Finally a ruling by the ECHR in 1984 made it very clear that equal pay was for work of equal value. No more, no less. Trivial differences and different job titles did not count.

There has been progress since all this, led by the brighter employers ably assisted or firmly kicked by unions as required. Things got better but, again, slowly.

Come 2010 and we get the Equality Act which gathers together all the various bits of equality and anti-discrimination law. In the course of that, government took the power to demand that individual companies report how they were getting on with all this.

Years later and companies were given a year’s notice to report their current situation and answer just 4 questions – is there a difference between the pay of men and of women using median pay? And using average pay? And if you divide your workforce into four quartiles, how many men and how many women are in each? And bonuses, how much in total goes to men and how much to women?

They have all this data already for tax and national insurance purposes, as well as for the accountants. This must count as one of the simplest mathematical exercises that anyone over 15 has ever been asked to do. It just has to be input online and signed off by the CEO or senior partner. Also it applies this time around only to companies with 250 or more employees so no worries about small start-ups or niche forensic labs where the one person with a biochemistry PhD could give an outcome which looked odd. Imagine the cost of this done by civil servants.

So Peterson thinks it is crude? Yes, of course it is crude and quite deliberately so. These are very simple figures which you can generate in-house from data already on your computer. No statistician, not even an accountant required and virtually cost-free.

The thing is that each set of figures is owned by the company. They generated them and they own them. It doesn’t attempt to explain how you got there, what you need to do next. It simply says this is where you are. No philosophical arguments required, either, no-one else to blame. Hell, I thought Peterson was a psychologist and in that dimension it is very clever indeed.

Update: somewhere about 1500 firms did not report by the deadline. They will be getting a very sharp letter on Monday then it is a month’s grace or you end up in court. And overall the gender pay gap seems to be under 10% with the exercise to be repeated next year.

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