What can we do about the gender pension gap?

29 Jan 2018 By Dr Sheena Johnson

If we don’t act soon, the issues fuelling pay disparity are only going to get worse as the population ages, says Dr Sheena Johnson

It comes as no surprise that big business is squirming when it comes to the gender pay gap. The topic is once again top of the news agenda, with some huge discrepancies between male and female pay coming to light at the likes of easyJet, Ladbrokes and Virgin Money

The constant and consistent disparity between the sexes remains a huge concern and will continue to claim column inches. There are many reasons to delve deeper than the top-line salaries of male and female workers reported in the headlines, and the gap is closing, but based on current estimates it could be more than 60 years before men and women are on an even keel. 

That means that those women entering the workforce now will likely be retired or close to retiring by the time they achieve parity – another generation lost to the gender pay gap.

One worrying side effect from that working life of disparity is that women will, in turn, be living a post-work life of disparity too. Pension pots will be smaller than those of men who have experienced similar careers; it’s no surprise that women nearing retirement already have just half the savings of men. With wider issues around pension ages and retirement savings generally, this gap will increase and the challenges for pension-age women will continue.

There are further contributing factors that will add to the challenge of achieving gender pension parity. Culturally, women continue to be more likely to take on a caring role within their families. This has long been the case in terms of raising children, but there are wider repercussions.

With the increase in state pension age, we will all work until an older age than ever before. Care will increasingly fall on those who are still in work, so we can expect people who care for older family members to face another pressure that will take women (much more regularly than men) out of the workplace, significantly affecting their earning power and pension pots.

These two care issues – for both children and the older generation – come together to create a perfect storm for women. Where previously mothers may have had the option to leave their children with parents during working hours, this is less likely as people work for longer and later in their lives. Childcare can be prohibitively expensive for many and, in the immediate term, is not often a cost-effective option. 

Of course, the pay gap is a crux and cause of all the subsequent issues that stem from it, from pensions and quality of life to spending power and boardroom inequality. At a macro level, government, business and individuals need to continue to fight against gender discrimination with the aim of reducing the gender pay gap.

We also need to consider how we can support people in terms of their pension provision if they take on caring roles. If individuals of either gender take a pay cut to care for elderly or ill family members, that reduces the burden on providing social or hospital care. Carers are effectively saving the government the huge costs associated with such care. Would it not be fair to provide pension support for people taking on this role?

We must also provide continued support for childcare, if we want to incentivise people to remain in work – and contribute to their pension – while raising a family.

These are simple moves that will make a significant positive impact on the issue of gender pay, and will help tackle the looming shadow of pension inequality. For now, gender equality continues to be a prevalent and worrying issue. As a society, we must move now and do more to eradicate it.  

Dr Sheena Johnson is a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School

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