The row over the salaries paid to male presenters at the BBC has reignited the question: why is there such an imbalance between the sexes when it comes to the size of their wage packet?
But while controversy raged over the news the Corporation’s top seven highest-paid stars, including Chris Evans, Gary Lineker, Graham Norton and Jeremy Vine, were receiving far more than their female counterparts, concerns have been raised that this issue has parallels much closer to home in the north of Scotland.
As Aberdeen Labour councillor and Unison trade union official, Sarah Duncan, said yesterday: “I know of one woman who worked in oil and gas, who discovered by chance (she was copied into an e-mail by accident), she was being paid 30% less basic salary than the four men at the same level in the organisation as her.
“Two of these did not manage large teams of people like she did and none of them had the safety-critical responsibilities she had. However, she was still very reluctant to push the issue with her employer because she thought they would simply push her out [of her job].”
North-east MSP Gillian Martin understands these situations and has serious concerns the disparity between men’s and women’s salaries will not be properly addressed by merely focusing on highly-paid TV staff.
As somebody who was recently involved in producing a hard-hitting, cross-party Holyrood report on the gender pay gap, she offered the insight: “If we do nothing about it in the UK, it will take until 2070 for pay to even out.
“If women were to earn the same as their male counterparts in Scotland, there would be an increase of £7billion into the Scottish economy. And, surely, that’s good for everybody.
“When I saw the furore over the BBC list, on the one hand I was pleased that this imbalance was getting the attention it deserves.
“But I was also wary of the fact our outrage was being confined to household names, when the pay gap is a major issue for low and middle earners across all the different sectors as well.
“Women find it more difficult to get promotion, they are often forced into taking lower-paid work beneath their skill set to deal with their caring responsibilities, and they often face inherent discrimination. The BBC situation is an extreme example of what is a wider issue across society.”
In many cases, where men and women are on different grades, it can be difficult to assess the scale of the gap, particularly in industries such as energy, PR and the media, where many employees are recruited on short-term contracts. But while there were contrasting responses when the Press and Journal contacted those in the oil and gas sphere, few denied that work was required to tackle the existing inequality.
Deirdre Michie, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK said: “We supported the UK Government’s legislation on gender pay reporting as we believe a greater understanding will help companies to close the gap.
“As the legislation came into force in April 2017, we won’t know the full picture until next year.
“We know there is an under representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) roles, not just in the oil and gas industry, but across the UK as a whole.
“The majority of women in STEM sectors also typically work in administrative or support functions which are lower paid than technical roles and this fuels the gender pay gap when reporting is done across the whole workforce.
“This shows the work that industry and society needs to continue to do to encourage more girls to take up STEM subjects, creating a pathway for more women to forge careers within the technical sector.”
Meanwhile, an oil employee, who requested anonymity, highlighted what she described as an “us and them” culture, between males and females in the industry.
She said: “To be fair, things are a bit better than they were when I started out 30 years ago. At that time, in the late 1980s, the general attitude was that men would get the important jobs and women would be secretaries, personal assistants, and organise the annual Christmas party.
“Nowadays, there is a realisation women can be as good in science, technology and maths as anybody. In some respects, they can be better because there is a real determination to succeed and I’m seeing younger women coming into roles now who are incredibly driven and determined.
“Most of us know that we’re still being paid less and we don’t like that, of course we don’t like that. But the BBC salaries showed nothing changes overnight and that isn’t going to happen in oil and gas.”
Another former oil employee, who asked not to be identified, added: “I was in the industry for 15 years, working as a petrophysicist, and I was certainly placed on a lower pay grade than my male counterparts at nearly every company.
“My husband is also in the industry. We started out at the same time after uni, and we had a similar technical job skill, but he has always been paid more than me throughout our careers.
“I also went through several rounds of redundancy recently and was shocked at how many more females than males were being let go by oil companies.”
Some respondents told the Press and Journal that matters had improved from a decade ago. Others, such as Amelia Dalton, the Yorkshirewomen who set up her own travel company and worked all across the north of Scotland from Oban to the Western Isles, offered a reminder of the journey still to negotiate.
She said: “It’s annoying when people think women aren’t suited to certain jobs, because it suggests men have all the answers. In my experience, women often come up with more effective solutions to problems than men.”
And yet, Ms Duncan argued that the problems of pay imbalance remained on a “significant scale” throughout the energy sector.
She said: “Gender segregation in job roles plays a large part in the persistent wage gap between the sexes and is particularly relevant in Aberdeen. Around 10 years ago, the city had the largest equal pay gap in the country and, as recently as three years ago, there was data showing women in Aberdeen earned, on average, only two thirds of the average male wage.
“There were several factors at work. The majority of the very highly-paid technical jobs in oil and gas were occupied by men, which inflated male earnings in the city and women were clustered in the public sector, in service industry and care, which are paid much, much less.
“The gender pay gap in the NHS still exists, but it is because of gender-segregated job roles, rather than fundamental differences in salaries between men and women in jobs of equal value.
“In contrast, women in oil and gas tend to cluster in the non-technical roles, such as HR, finance and administration, which are remunerated at a lower level in many of these firms, because they are seen as a cost and a drain on the company, rather than directly generating revenue.
“I think that the ‘easy’ work of removing obvious gender pay differences has now been done, mostly in the public sector, through tackling discriminatory pay systems by using job evaluation schemes, having transparent pay grades and open, fair advertising and recruitment of posts.
“It will be much more difficult to close the gaps in the private sector, because people will have to demand that private company pay scales are published, jobs are recruited to a certain pay band, and pay data is published.
“We have to tackle gender segregation, too, not just by encouraging more young women to consider traditionally ‘male’ jobs in STEM industries, but also by valuing much more highly essential jobs in social care, education and early years which are low-paid at the moment.”
There’s a poster in Mrs Martin’s office which declares in matter-of-fact fashion: Ending the Gender Pay Gap Matters because: “I don’t want my daughter and my nieces to have the same issues I encountered in the workplace.”
But how realistic is that objective? According to the Holyrood report, the gap in Scotland is still above 15%.
Indeed, Mrs Martin didn’t simply speak about oil and gas, stating: “There seems to be a particularly stubborn gender pay gap in the legal process, which is especially astounding, given that more women than men actually work in that sector.
“But they are not reaching the higher paid positions at the same rate as their male counterparts.”
The problem is not confined to Scotland or even the UK. On the contrary, Jane Gotts, the adviser to the Holyrood committee which produced No Small Change: The Economic Potential of Closing the Gender Pay Gap, declared: “Estimates globally suggest that, at the present rate, it will take another 140 years for the
gap to close in all countries across the world.
“Despite the progress over the past generation of women in education and in the workplace, the pay gap in Scotland remains.
“Because of this, our economy is not achieving its full potential.”
The tidal wave of criticism which engulfed the BBC seems to have been just the top of the iceberg. But, from many women’s perspective, the positive aspect of the story was how it brought the whole matter out into the open.
Mrs Martin explained: “The current UK legislation means companies with 250 or more employees will have to publish their gender pay gaps within the next year under a new legal requirement.
“We must help women to reach their full potential. It is the right thing to do and makes huge economic sense.
“As part of the economy committee, we have had good conversations with service firms who are already looking to implement positive changes.
“But I would also be urging oil and gas firms to launch action plans on how to close the gender pay gap within their companies and make sure they are transparent about the current state of play and are working as efficiently as possible to make real change.
“This isn’t simply about salaries, it’s about progression and promotion. We must ensure it is not 2070 before we have equal pay.”