icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

The hole in the gap

Another look at the narrative of the gender pay difference

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). The hole in the gap. Another look at the narrative of the gender pay difference. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.2 (February).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). The hole in the gap. Another look at the narrative of the gender pay difference. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.2 (February).

London, 10 February 2019 - Noam Chomsky says that the growing divide between richest and poorest in the West society is not caused by economic laws but by a kind of class war initiated by the rich and powerful against the working population and the poor (Optimism over Despair, 2017). In other terms these inequalities, he suggests, are policies endorsed and actively implemented by governments.

I could not agree more. An example of this myopic way to treat wicked issues in the media is the BBC annual update about the pay discrimination between male and female members of staff. Of course such topic is readable at very different levels, including gossiping about celebrities rivalries and wardrobes. It is immediately echoed by a number of other media that reflect, very seriously, on the gender pay gap across all possible sectors, industries and organisations to find out - guess what - that the gender pay gap does exist and it is experienced everywhere. Great audience shares! Well done!

And what about the freelance platforms, including the BBC's one, where people officially accounted as in full employment, even when they are trapped into low income or subsidised jobs, are constantly shoved down the road of giving up their talented work for free or for the pleasure of socialising and having kind, educated, civilised and organised interactions as the same real employed people do? Is there any gender pay gap issue when the salary is zero?

Chomsky's analysis is indeed very interesting for a number of reasons: what does inhibit or influence social change and policy making approaches to wicked issues? What could be done to contrast the growing disproportionate powers of plutocratic circles that rule the world's economy? He points, for instance, to the concentration of wealth that yields to concentration of power. That in turn translates to legislation favouring the interests of the rich and powerful and thereby increasing even further the concentration of power and wealth.

Much more modestly, I would rather limit my optimistic observations here on the technicalities of communicating complex matters while inventing or engineering narratives that do not actually make any change at all. At their best, such narratives justify minimal, incremental, legitimate changes that would happen anyhow by inertia, even without any active policy or invisible hand stirring the market. Much of the public discourses we are surrounded by and we all contribute to are in fact functional to the status quo, to disingagement from the responsibilities connected to owning or saying a certain truth, and unfortunately they are most of the times supinely replicated in vicious cycles. The only chance we have to be optimistic comes from the evidence that people like to learn, try and find better ways to live their lives.

Knowing me knowing you

As this year I've got a bit fed up with the BBC pay gap news, I decided to have a look at the data sources on the subject that does not immediately fall into my regular interests.

This is the mindset I have acquired during long juvenile years of corporate information management and then freelance journalism: the best way to understand any topical issue is to research it.

Not so easy peasy, especially when we want to compare earnings, wages, living standards conditions and so on and so forth at international level. But nonetheless huge and costly scientific data collections and methodological exercises in statistics can ensure an approximate trustworthy representation of social problems and dynamics, surely more articulated than the narratives that pollute our attention coming from social media, newspapers and tv programmes.

There are innumerable official and independent sources out there documenting the progressively increasing inequality in wealth distribution. I had a look at just a few but very authoritative.

The American Economic Policy Institute (EPI.org) has recently updated some datasets about inequalities in the USA labour market, very effectively visualised also through simple infographics: the top 1% reached the highest wages ever in 2018, up 157% since 1978. Last year the EPI also discussed the decision of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to introduce a distinction between the notions of unemployed and not in the labour force. The distinction is analytically very determinant: people that are not accounted as actively looking for work, for whatever reason, disappear from the labour force. More about the politics of statistical data management in a second.

The OECD has developed an interactive web application and data visualisation that collects perceptions from the public and in return offers the latest available data for each country so that you can benchmark your own ideas with "objective" measures: I took the quiz and it turned out that in the UK the 28% of the available income goes to the reachest 10% of the population whereas the rest of the population gets the remaining 72%. My views were slightly more pessimistic but substantially in line. So I was told what I already knew: that there is a considerably wealthy elite and a mass of people with either an average or a low income.

Such disparity between the shares of the world's wealth held by the richest and poorest is reflected by pretty much any statistical source in the developed economies, including China, with different degrees of effectiveness, data dramatisation and neutrality.

Eurostat is always very careful in being policy and politics equidistant up to the point of becoming a bit hermetic to the non-specialist or incomprehensibly technical when it says, for instance, that the ratio of total income received by the 20% of the population with the highest income (top quintile) to that received by the 20% of the population with the lowest income (lowest quintile) has been stuck around 5% for a number of years in the whole of the EU (28 countries, 2017 update).

But the most shamelessly political source of data on the issue is undoubtedly the World Bank whose mission seems to reassure us that the proportion of the world's population living in extreme povery has dropped significantly, without telling us when and how did it happen! What a shame we missed the moment! Not to mention the fact that the population has been always expanding and living standards have always gone up.

Of course, we can be all happier knowing that worldwide poverty has never been at its lowest since a certain measure is in place, especially if we are in the top richiest 10% of the population. But everybody else with a basic level of data literacy can notice this is just a clever data trick I have myself exploited or possibly invented in the early 1990s while working in the media sector in Italy - I did not see it applied by anybody else at the time: if you want to say to your competitors' lawyers or to the antitrust authorities that your share of the market is not at all so dominant as it appears at first, just ...enlarge the market. A very effective propaganda and distraction mechanism can transfigure or distort any data pie. But I would rather say that the World Bank and anybody else wearing macroeconomic or political lenses and willing to engage in the diffusion of statistical knowledge should dismiss, once and for all, the "enlarge the market" magic trick.

So, I went back to my desk and decided to focus on one simple notion. Wages.

What lies behind gender pay gaps

ILO (the International Labour Organisation) publishes an annual Global Wage Report. The latest edition, 2018/2019, is entitled What lies behind gender pay gaps. I turned to it in trepidation. They may be able to explain. In fact, the preface is quite informative.

It starts saying that gender pay gaps represent one of today’s greatest social injustices. Uhm. Alright.

Second, the report analyses and breaks down gender pay gaps to better understand what lies behind this figure. The evidence shows that, in fact, much of the gender pay gap cannot be explained by any of the objective labour markets characteristics that usually underlie the determination of wages. In high-income countries, for examples, almost all of the gender pay gap remains unexplained.

We are told, very interestingly, that occupational segregation and the polarisation by gender of industries and economic sectors stand out as key factors. This is an amazing way to frame the problem so that social historians, scholars in cultural studies and economists can join in, and look at its innumerable aspects, and add more analytical acumen for the sake of public engagement with data science [please excuse the sarcasm here].

Furthermore, the report offers food for thought also to policy makers, social psychologists, carers and family planners when it states that gender polarisation is also an important factor: the report shows that in Europe, for example, working in an enterprise with a predominantly female workforce can bring about a 14.7 per cent wage penalty compared to working in an enterprise with similar productivity attributes but a different gender mix. This 14.7 per cent gap can translate into a loss of about €3,500 (approximately US$4,000) in salary per year for those who work in feminized sectors. Finally, the report shows that motherhood brings about a wage penalty that can persist across a woman's working life while the status of fatherhood is persistently associated with a wage premium.

The report suggests a number of policy measures to achieve pay parity between women and men [...] to contribute to eradicating pay inequalities across the world.

That's it.

Of course the report contains (especially in Part I and in the Appendices) the whole battery of datasets on worldwide wages trends, collected using national data sources, as we would expect. So, to the stubborn or creative casual reader, researcher, journalist or student, it does deliver anyway the raw information they may be seeking.

Indeed, in spite of various positive economic outlooks, in spite of falling unemployment rates, wages do not grow. Unless few privileged, the majority of us tend to become in the long term poorer and poorer in terms of earnings - the ILO's definition of which quite flexibly but with appropriate distinctions is generous enough to include also payments in kind. You learn, for instance, that the global wage growth in real terms has declined from 2.4 per cent in 2016 to just 1.8 per cent in 2017 and in the advanced G20 countries, real wage growth declined from 1.7 per cent in 2015 to 0.9 per cent in 2016 and 0.4 per cent in 2017.

Wages fall towards zero growth rates everywhere in the world: this is what seems to be really liying behind gender pay gaps. Is everything all right? Are we all getting happier all the same? Hard to believe it.

Another major phenomenon, as the ILO's report briefly and precisely states in the executive summary, is the wage growth lagging behind productivity growth in high-income countries.

These two global trends, wages zero growth and productivity increase without human engagement, exacerbates discriminations, prejudices, bias and some "cultural" approaches at the root of the labour market dynamics.

The ILO report does suggest a number of measures, policies and ideas to move beyond simple measures and calculate factor-weighted gender pay gaps, or promote the formalisation of the informal economy [that] can also greatly benefit women, bringing them under the umbrella of legal and effective protection and empowering them to better defend their interests.

But this is not how modern communication of information works for official sources, public data providers, NGO or international research bodies. Nobody wants to be alarmed with data that create - at all levels - enormous anxiety or trigger ideological frictions nor it makes sense to promote awareness of problems that are just unsolvable and too complex for being treated and debated in the public domain out of the safety, predictable net of pre-determined, sanitised agendas. It is a bit like information about cancer. Nobody but the literates or the severely ill are interested in it.

The obvious communication strategy for the ILO report - as well as for many other major official sources of vital public data - consists therefore in becoming aligned to coral voices and mainstream music themes.

We all would like to have such easy option of jumping on major media bandwagons and in so doing to have a chance to reach people attention, otherwise our messages risk to become dispersed and ignored, like the poor teardrops in an ocean of audience indifference.

However, some get paid, some do not.