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Jenny Cole

Why is reducing the gender pay gap controversial?

12 June 2017 | by Jenny Cole

On Wednesday the BPS is hosting a talk at Bournemouth University which aims to explore why the gender pay gap still exists and how we can halve it. In advance of this, Jenny Cole has provided us with this piece discussing the controversy surrounding the issue.

The very existence of the gender pay gap remains controversial, with some writers arguing that it does not exist, or that it exists for reasons other than structural inequality which disadvantages women.

But why does the gender gap remain controversial?

And why might people be opposed to action aimed at reducing it?

Threatening the ingroup

It may seem clear why men, for example, might question the existence of the gender pay gap. Organisations only have finite funds. Paying women more to reduce this gap directly affects men who may find their pay frozen or reduced in order to achieve the aim of equal pay based on gender.

We know from social psychological theory such as intergroup threat theory that groups are likely to see members of other groups as threats in many different ways, including as a direct threat to their own group’s resources. There is also evidence that when people think about actions aimed at benefiting minority groups, they tend to concentrate on the potential effects on their own group, which reduces support for tackling inequality.

This means that men may see the reduction of the gender pay gap as directly threatening to their interests, and therefore employ strategies to discredit evidence that it exists as a group protection strategy.

Reducing minority group self esteem

It is not just members of advantaged group which may oppose affirmative action to reduce inequality in pay.

There is some evidence, for example, that affirmative action aimed at gender inequality can negatively affect the self-esteem of women who have benefited from such action. It may lead to women feeling like their pay is due, in part, to their gender and not to their worth or merit.

This uncomfortable feeling can result in women also opposing certain types of action to reduce the wage gap.

Threatening cultural values based on fairness

Perceived unfairness of affirmative action affects the attitudes of men and women to reducing inequality. Affirmative action policies create an inconsistency in our environment which causes psychological discomfort; thus creating the perception that in order to deal with an unfairness, we must treat a currently advantaged group unfairly.

This idea violates Western cultural ideals of fairness and procedural justice and means that both men and women may have negative attitudes to affirmative action to equalise pay.

How might support for reducing the gender wage gap be encouraged?

Changing the way people think could effect how we make sense of taking specific action to reduce inequality. Encouraging what is called ‘dialectical thinking’ may offer one solution to this issue.

People who are higher in dialectical thinking are better able to accept inconsistencies in their environment and focus on the ‘bigger picture’, and there is evidence to show that those who are higher in dialectical thinking are more likely to endorse affirmative action than those who not.

Dialectical thinking can be encouraged using tasks which require thinking about one’s own life events in a complex and interconnected way. Discussing strategies to reduce in equality in a way which activates this type of thinking could be one way to reduce opposition.

Of course not all methods of reducing the wage gap are the same. Demonstrating preferences for women when recruiting for higher paying roles, for example, may reduce the gap. However, this kind of strategy is also likely to prime perceptions of unfairness, and may affect those women’s self-esteem.

Approaches which take a broader view of the pay gap and consider the wider factors which impact on pay may be more popular.

For example, there is evidence that women still take responsibility for the majority of childcare-related tasks, effecting their ability to engage in certain work patterns, or in long working hours.

If organisations can make changes to encourage more flexible working for everyone, some of the issues contributing to inequality may be addressed without appearing to threaten values of justice and fairness.

Ultimately how best to address the gender wage gap remains a controversial issue, and the reasons why people may be reluctant to do so are complex.

The talk on Wednesday by Diana Parkes promises to be interesting and will no doubt provoke a very lively discussion.

For more information on the event, please click here.


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