I’ll tell you something: You can’t fix the gender pay gap without also fixing the ethnicity pay gap

Pay discrepancies among minorities need to be tackled as a whole and not in isolation, says Binna Kandola

It often feels as though the gender pay gap is the issue of our generation. It’s not a problem that can be solved overnight and there’s a great deal of progress still to be made – but it feels like action is being taken. 

A similar issue often overlooked though is the ethnicity pay gap. An increasing number of companies have committed to publishing their ethnicity pay gap figures and the government is considering making this mandatory. But there is one crucial mistake the vast majority of organisations are making: they are viewing the gender pay gap and the ethnicity pay gap as separate problems. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – and so the lack of attention given to the ethnicity pay gap is infuriating.  

Take the controversy the BBC faced in November 2017. While much attention was paid to the difference between the salaries of men and women, far less was given to that between white and BAME staff. Breaking down the BBC’s figures by both ethnicity and gender shows the highest-earning white man earned up to £2,249,999: four-and-a-half times more than the highest-earning white woman (£499,999), seven-and-a-half times more than the highest-paid BAME man (£299,999) and nine times more than the highest-paid BAME woman (£249,999). In other words, the BBC didn’t just have a gender pay gap, it had a significant ethnicity pay gap too. 

This issue isn’t exclusive to the BBC. Analyses of pay by ethnicity have been carried out in several countries and the similarity of the results is striking. Generally speaking, in every walk of life and in every profession, minorities, and in particular black people, are consistently paid less. 

The question is: why? Part of the answer lies in the stereotyping of different groups. For example, a key contributor to the gender pay gap is the fact that stereotypically female roles come with smaller pay packets. A factor often overlooked is that BAME men are more likely than white men to be found in typically female-dominated roles, such as care or service positions. 

We also need to consider that white people are more likely to be awarded senior roles. This particular problem is because, on an unconscious level, managers are likely to evaluate someone who is clearly similar to them more favourably. They will find it easier to connect on a personal level and the individual will ultimately have more opportunities to take on responsibility and prove themselves, as well as greater access to informal mentoring and support networks. Given that most senior roles are filled by white people, this suggests white staff are given preferential treatment and are able to climb the ladder more quickly. 

It’s clear that the ethnicity pay gap needs addressing as vigorously as the gender pay gap, but it also needs to be tackled in tandem. So how should we approach this? The uncomfortable truth – one that organisations are rarely willing to acknowledge – is that the problem lies with the people behind recruitment, promotion and development processes. 

None of us are as objective as we think, and few recognise the judgements we make are affected by ethnicity. This leads to the perpetuation of minorities being stereotyped and awarded roles that have fewer opportunities for progression and pay less. 

A more complex, intersectional approach to pay is required. And the people operating recruitment, promotion and development processes must be supported with training to conduct these with care, attention and accuracy.

Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola and author of Racism at Work