Would you work for 15% less than your male colleagues?  You probably already do. Rebecca Davis investigates the gender pay gap in South Africa.

It was four years ago when Jo*, now 37, discovered she had been earning less than a male colleague who was junior to her in the workplace. ‘When I went into the hiring process to employ John’s replacement, and we identified a potential candidate, I asked for the salary range – and they gave me John’s salary package on paper,’ Jo says now. ‘It was more than mine. I had a master’s degree and, at that stage, eight years’ experience in our industry. He had a first degree and three years’ experience in our industry. But most importantly: I was managing him and, probably, without exaggeration, working 16 to 20 hours more in a workweek than he was.’

Jo works in mining, but her experience in the South African workforce is by no means exceptional. Anita Bosch, lead researcher at the Women in the Workplace research programme at the University of Johannesburg, says that on average South African women are paid between 15 and 17% less than their male colleagues. The gender pay gap is a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s one that many people don’t believe exists. That fact was abundantly illustrated on the internet during Equal Pay Day on 12 April this year. The date is selected because it’s the point in the year at which an American woman is likely to catch up with a man’s salary for the previous year. Here’s a sample tweet from that day: ‘Try getting a degree that isn’t completely worthless like “gender studies” and you might get an actual job that pays better. #EqualPayDay’. Here’s another: ‘If it were possible to pay women less for the same work no men would have jobs.’

The gender pay gap is a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s one that many people don’t believe exists

Why hire a man for more money? On the face of it, the concept seems absurd, and yet it happens every day. Nomfundo*, 43, is a South African woman working in the media industry. ‘I know for a fact I am earning less than one of my male colleagues,’ she says. ‘I am more experienced than him, I have more responsibility, and I’m in a more senior position. I have raised this with all the relevant departments on several occasions, and backed up my concerns with solid facts. I have been faced with many mutterings about how my queries are valid and “they’re working on it”. They must be giving it a lot of thought because this has been going on for a couple of years.’ The reality is simple: in South Africa, it is illegal to pay men and women differently for doing the same job. ‘South African law is quite robust in that it specifically says there must be equal pay for equal work,’ says labour lawyer Michael Bagraim. ‘Paying men and women differently would be an unfair labour practice and could amount to a law suit.’ One of the problems, however, is that there is so little transparency around what people are paid.

There is no obligation for companies to reveal remuneration to employees, and in social terms it is often considered impolite to ask a colleague what they are earning. This is one of the factors that allows businesses to get away with paying male workers more than women. ‘Due to confidentiality I couldn’t say anything because it was against company policy to discuss salaries,’ says Minoshni*, 27, of the moment when she realised she was being paid less than her male counterparts. ‘I worked at a major retail company full-time for almost two years. Before I left, I spoke to the men I worked with about salaries as I was offered an increase to stay. It was only then that we realised I was paid at least R1 000 to R2 000 less than each of them. We did the same job, worked the same amount of hours, had the same sales targets and had undergone the same training.’

Women move up to a particular level, and thereafter [are not] promoted or remunerated further

The gender pay gap is worse in some South African industries than others. Anita stresses the fact that the 15 to 17% figure is an ‘aggregated differential’. In certain sectors, women earn more than men. ‘In administration positions, for instance, women outperform men,’ Anita says. ‘Their skill level in those positions is highly sought after, and they tend to command salaries that are much higher.’ Anita says that in South African terms, the mining sector is probably the industry with the most extreme gender pay gap. ‘But in the services sector, which includes education, there is clear evidence of a pay glass ceiling,’ she says. Women will move up to a particular level, and thereafter will not be promoted or remunerated further.

The question of why the gender pay gap exists is not straightforward. Plain sexism is not an adequate explanation in all cases. American podcast, Freakonomics, recently tackled the issue, and quoted economist Claudia Goldin as saying, ‘We don’t have tons of evidence that it’s true discrimination.’ In Claudia’s view, the major factor why men are paid more than women is what she calls ‘temporal flexibility’. Women are more often than men responsible for childcare, for instance, and as a result are forced to take more leave, or seek out employment which allows them time to look after their children. Freakonomics interviewed policymaker and lawyer Anne-Marie Slaughter who said pay for women who don’t have caregiving obligations is almost equal to men. ‘But when women have children, or are caring for parents or other sick family members, they need to work flexibly,’ Anne-Marie said. ‘They often need to go part-time. They often get less-good assignments because their bosses think that they’re not going to want work that allows them to travel, or they’re not going to be able to stay up all night, or whatever it is.’ The corollary, she added, is that women who work flexibly are less likely to be promoted.

‘[Men] also choose to be fathers, and their pay cheques aren’t docked for it.’

The fact that women are responsible for more caregiving than men, however, is often a sexist issue. ‘Do women choose to be mothers?’ asked Monica Potts in The Daily Beast in 2014. ‘Sure. But men also choose to be fathers, and their pay cheques aren’t docked for it.’ Another factor is simply that women are more likely than men to enter low-paying industries. In South Africa, it’s probable that a cashier at a supermarket, or a domestic worker, will be female. It’s sometimes argued that males are just more likely to be drawn to more technical and high-earning careers like engineering. But here it’s impossible to estimate the impact of stereotyping and social expectations, particularly within childhood and education. Are girls encouraged to the same degree as boys to see engineering as a possible career? Are little girls given tools or cars to play with, to hone a potential technical interest? But even if women suddenly all decided to be engineers instead of teachers, would they earn fat salaries? Not necessarily.

A study by Cornell University in the US in March this year found that average pay tends to fall when women enter certain industries in greater numbers. To quote The New York Times, there’s a pretty straightforward reason: ‘Work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly.’ That’s why certain types of work associated mainly with women – such as social work – inevitably pay less. There’s another issue, though, and that’s that women tend to value themselves lower than men in the marketplace.

This is something Charlotte Kilbane, a 40-year-old Cape Town-based media consultant, has repeatedly noted during her 20-year experience in the corporate world. ‘Male salary expectations are almost without exception higher,’ she says, noting that there is also a difference to the way men and women go about negotiating for salary raises. ‘Men are more likely to argue for money in terms of their own perceived value,’ she says. ‘Women, on the other hand, tend to go, “I really need a raise because my car payments have gone up, my rent’s gone up”. You have to argue on the basis of, “This is the value I can add”.’ Anita agrees. ‘Women don’t negotiate as hard,’ she says. ‘Men, if anything, tend to overvalue their skills. And if you come in at a lower salary, then that salary is set.’ Jo, the mining consultant who found out that she was being paid less than her male junior, discovered this to her cost. ‘When I raised the salary discrepancy with HR, they at least had the good grace to be mortified. But they also told me that this is what happens when you stay in a company for years – your salary is only increased incrementally.’

There is little justification for the pay discrepancy between Banyana Banyana and Bafana Bafana

If you start off asking for a lower salary than your male colleagues, chances are that things will stay that way. There are certain industries, however, in which there are scant excuses for the gender pay gap. One of them is sport. In April 2016, five members of the Fifa World Cup-winning US women’s soccer team filed a complaint demanding equal pay for equal work. They can make $99 000 (about R1.5 million) per year if they perform at a certain standard; their male counterparts stand to gain $236 320 (about R3.7 million), with additional bonuses not given to the women. The argument usually advanced to defend why female athletes deserve less pay is that people don’t want to watch women’s sport. When the US women’s team was in the Fifa World Cup final in 2014, however, it proved to be the most-watched soccer match in US history.

We saw a similar situation in South Africa during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, when more people tuned in to watch female soccer team Banyana Banyana play than any other Olympic event. The US women’s soccer team has also consistently performed far better than the men’s, winning three Fifa World Cups. That’s three more Fifa World Cup finals than the men have played in. In a South African context, sports minister Fikile Mbalula blames corporate sexism for the fact that female sports stars receive less sponsorship than men. Still, there is little justification for the pay discrepancy between Banyana Banyana and Bafana Bafana. The women’s team has, unlike the men’s, qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio this year – and yet the players earn between R2 000 and R5 000 per game, while Bafana players stand to take home at least R60 000 for a win.

[Women’s] reluctance to negotiate may play a part

Another career realm where the gender pay gap exists is in entertainment, where female film stars are almost invariably paid less. Again, a reluctance to negotiate may play a part in this. Jennifer Lawrence said she didn’t bargain hard enough for monetary spoils from her film, American Hustle, because ‘there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled”.’ What, then, is to be done? For Nomfundo, it’s an intransigent issue. ‘While I object to the situation on many levels, what is the best way to deal with it?’ she asks. ‘Play too hardball and find yourself being pushed out, or play nice and know you are earning less than someone else?’ For some women, the best route is to go it alone.

Jo says the gender pay gap was one of the main reasons she chose to resign from a corporate job and opt for life as a freelancer. ‘I believed that the market would pay for my skills at a more fair rate,’ she says. ‘And in my first 18 months of consulting, I increased my earnings by 30%.’ Charlotte advises women to be more hard-nosed when negotiating starting salaries or raises. ‘Whatever you think your value is, add some fat,’ she says.

She also notes that sometimes obtaining more money may just not be possible in the current economic climate. ‘Think of other things that could induce you to go to a company- for example, leave, flexi-time, payment for studies, profit-share systems or car allowances. Some companies even pay for childcare.’ Charlotte says to also note how many women are currently in top management roles, as that will give you an idea of how female-friendly a company is.

‘Ultimately, you have to be a participant in your own success.’