Mind the Gap: Is the fashion industry doing enough to close the gender pay gap?
Undoubtedly #MeToo and Time’s Up have cast a spotlight on the myriad aspects of gender inequality in society. Notably, there’s a renewed interest in the injustices of gender inequality in the workplace. This was recently brought into the public consciousness by the BBC women’s equal pay row; more than 10 senior women at the BBC were reported to be seeking legal advice after it was uncovered that many were receiving a fraction of their male colleagues’ salaries. Industry to industry the gender pay gap varies, but one thing remains consistent: women have historically been paid less than their male counterparts. Though fashion companies are traditionally considered to have more female-centric workplaces, the industry isn’t immune from the equal pay debate. In fact, earlier this year fashion brands were called out as some of the worst offenders. So, what can we do to end the systematic discrimination of female employees?
By law, the UK now requires companies with more than 250 employees to report annually on the disparity between the hourly wages earned by male and female colleagues. In the context of Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March movement, this law was billed as the biggest legal game-changer for working women since the Equal Pay Act in 1970, which made it illegal to pay men and women differently for an identical job. It is thought that by requiring businesses to publicly share salary information and taking away the possibility of concealing any gender pay gaps, the disparities will ultimately disappear. However, one of the biggest criticisms of this new system— which came into force in April 2017— is that the data highlights the overall gap in pay, and does not clearly demarcate whether women and men are earning different salaries for doing the same job.
In Missguided’s 2018 gender pay gap statement, they prefaced their latest statistics with the following pledge, “our mission is to empower young women to look and feel confident for every occasion. As a brand built on empowerment, we’re proud that 78% of Missguided colleagues are women”. This instantly sounds encouraging, but as you examine the detail that follows this opening speech instantly becomes a smokescreen. Could we expect anything more from a fast fashion brand that once promoted their £1 polyester bikini as a celebration of female empowerment? According to their data, the company recorded a staggering 46% gender pay gap in 2018. To put this into perspective, the average UK company reported a 9.7% gender pay gap in the equivalent year meaning it’s over four times the national average (BBC News).
Missguided also disclosed that the proportion of men receiving a bonus was 60%, compared to women at 45%. However, the company are quick to argue that this is not because women and men were being paid differently for doing the same job, but simply because more women are working in lower paid roles and fewer in higher paid ones— for example 88% of their sales associates are female. So why aren’t more women being recruited for the top leadership roles?
The same criticisms were also levelled at companies like Karen Millen (with a gender pay gap of 49%), the beauty brand Benefit Cosmetics (30.7%) and Burberry (26%). Burberry even released a statement from their CEO, Marco Gobbetti explaining that “the gap is influenced by the fact that we have fewer women in senior positions” but they remain “committed to narrowing this gap” and are working “to develop more women leaders to drive the growth and success of [the] business.”
As e-commerce becomes a dominant aspect of almost every fashion brand, those equipped with the skills to build, regulate and manage complex technological systems are highly sought after. In this case the absence of women in highly paid roles is, in part, due to the scarcity of women in STEM—the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Conversely, the garment manufacturers in developing countries are typically women—for example in Bangladesh 85% of the workers who make our clothes are women, and in Cambodia it’s as high as 90%. In these countries the legal minimum wage for garment workers in the country can be as little as £73.85 per month.
The lack of mentorship opportunities for women has also been reported as an issue, especially in environments where the senior workforce is made up of men. According to Experteer Magazine, “people still tend to identify with younger colleagues of the same sex. So they may be more supportive, encouraging and helpful to young men than they are to young women. Also, because of specific laws surrounding governing appropriate behaviour in the workplace, men may be reluctant to initiate mentoring a woman for fear of negative repercussions.”
However, an interesting study by the Harvard Business Review suggests that the recruitment process is a significant issue in the gender pay gap debate. In a study of more than 10,000 senior executives who were competing for top management jobs in the UK, researchers found that the women were less likely to apply for executive roles if they’ve been rejected before: “women’s decisions to remove themselves from competition after having been rejected is driven partly by their experience of being a negatively stereotyped minority in the executive labour market… Because the majority of men had generally not been subject to [feeling like outsiders], men were less likely to take rejection as a signal that they did not belong in the corner offices, and therefore such disappointments had less of a negative impact on their willingness to apply again.”
Creating diverse interview panels is a key factor in removing any unconscious bias in the hiring process, which can be a huge barrier to increasing diversity. “The main thing a [diverse] panel is seeking to do is put checks and balances on something we call in-group favoritism,” says diversity expect Vernā Myers. “It’s not the kind of bias that is overt discrimination… [and] people don’t understand it’s a bias.” This is a tried and tested strategy: in 2014, Intel began requiring that interview panels for all new hires include at least two women/members of underrepresented communities and the recruitment statistics saw a 15% rise in the diversity of successful candidates.
The new law requiring businesses to disclose their gender pay gap is forcing fashion brands to be more accountable than ever. When consumers are led to believe their favourite brands have positive ethos and are aiming to empower women, they want to know that this is reflected in the brand’s corporate structure. But one law cannot bear the sole responsibility to foster systemic change amongst top executives. Three key areas to address the gender pay gap include minimising the risk of gender bias in recruitment procedures, actively mentoring female talent and creating an environment where women are empowered to voice their views.
*Where companies report a 0% pay gap, this means men and women receive the same pay.
Image by Jen Carey, styling by Alexandra Carl, set design by Valerie Weill for WSJ magazine