Researching, renewing and reimagining gender pay gap politics and policy

Mazur group photo sharpened

Ingrid Bego, Anne Charlott Callerstig, Elisa Chieregato, Isabelle Engeli, Ashley English, Lenita Freidenvall, Season Hoard, Sophie Jacquot, Andrea Jochmann-Doell, Veronika Lemeire, Iga Magda, Amy Mazur, Susan Milner, Lucie Newsome, Ania Plomien, Sophie Pochic, Jill Rubery, Olga Salido, Francesca Scala, Alexandra Scheele, Sydney Smith, Andrea Spehar, and Ines Wagner.

The politics and policy addressing gender inequalities in public and private life evident across supra-national, national, local or organisational contexts, especially but not exclusively in the Global North, are nothing short of remarkable. The range of issues various actors promote to advance equality include care, division of labour, education, employment, health, pay, political participation, poverty of income and time, reproductive rights, violence and more. All these interests are underpinned by gendered social norms and power. Yet, the existence and prominence of the wide assortment of gender politics and policies is as much a cause for celebration as it is for concern. It represents both an achievement of the feminist struggle to legitimise and institutionalise feminist goals of improving women’s lives, juxtaposed with the uneven, unfinished, or indeed unintended outcomes of these efforts. Does gender equality policy work in practice?

This question drives the Gender Equality Policy in Practice (GEPP) network of researchers who share an agenda examining gender politics and policies in areas such as care, corporate boards, political representation, policy implementation in France, and most recently pay. Equality and fairness in pay underpin the fundamental feminist goal of women’s economic independence. The concept of equal pay for equal work, prominent since the early 20th century, has become almost universally accepted. Equal pay is justified for delivering equal results. The claim of equal pay for work of equal value, or comparable worth, remains more controversial, despite the 1951 ILO Equal Remuneration Convention  No. 100 having been signed by 174 countries, making it one of the most highly ratified conventions. In the European Union, the principle of equal pay for men and women was introduced with the 1957 Treaty of Rome, followed by the 1975 Equal Pay Directive. Equal pay is more difficult to agree when results are, or appear to be, different.

The most common indicator used to depict the lack of equality and fairness in pay is the gender pay gap – a summary statistic for gender wage differentials capturing individual characteristics (such as workers’ human capital), institutional arrangements (such as the wage structure and pay determination systems) and structural constraints (such as the gender division of labour and the concomitant vertical and horizontal segregation). The gender pay gap is a persistent and worldwide phenomenon, with estimates suggesting that on average women are paid 20 per cent less than men across the world. The size and the prevalence of the gap triggers important questions. Is this a large gap? Does it justify not only a renewal but also a reimagination of pay politics and policy?

The answer to the first question is unequivocally yes! At the current rate of progress, the gap contributing to the economic participation and opportunity index would take over 151 years to eradicate. This is longer than anyone reading this blog can afford to wait, patience being the lower obstacle than biological lifespan. Considering a more meaningful time-scale is no less poignant. A gap as wide as 20 per cent in a particular year masks the cumulative effects of unequal pay, as in the US where over a period of 15 years men earn twice as much as women. Finally, large variations between countries, industries, sectors, occupations, career/life-course patterns and many other factors, mean that the gap is often much wider, and even when it is narrower, given women’s higher educational attainment or contribution to activities valued by society, it should be non-existent or work in their favour to reflect that value.  

The answer to the second question is more complex. Why has the legislation in place for decades not resolved pay inequality? Is it that policies have not worked because the wrong kind of measures were put in place, ones that have not aligned with the root causes of unequal pay? Or is it because there is something wrong with the way in which appropriate instruments have failed at the level of implementation? More likely it is a combination of these, where the goal of equal pay is elusive because the context in which pay is determined keeps changing, requiring new political approaches. Fortunately, closing the gender pay gaps has become more of a prominent concern than ever, with a growing number of governments proposing new measures to tackle the problem. Innovative legislation includes transparency instruments encouraging or requiring employers to make visible the inequalities in pay at firm level. While an essential new step, such policies can disappoint because they lack intersectional potential, serving relatively privileged women and failing to act on wider societal structures that perpetuate complex forms of inequality.  

Would dropping the seemingly failing old and new gender pay gap initiatives from the political agenda bode well for women’s economic independence? This question drives our comparative research agenda of the Gender Equality Policy in Practice (GEPP) research focus on pay with a view to advancing feminist knowledge, policy and politics.

We would like to thank the primary funders of GEPP’s research: ZIF University of Bielefeld and the Policy & Politics journal. This research was also funded by a public grant overseen by the French National Research Agency (ANR) as part of the “Investissements d’Avenir” program LIEPP (ANR-11-LABX-0091, ANR-11-IDEX-0005-02) and the Université de Paris IdEx (ANR-18-IDEX-0001).

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Journal article: Christofferson, A., (2021) ‘The politics of intersectional practice: competing concepts of intersectionality’, Policy & Politics. DOI:

Journal article: Lombardo, E. and Meier, P., (2022) ‘Challenging boundaries to expand frontiers in gender and policy studies’, Policy & Politics. DOI:

Blog: How diverse and inclusive are policy process theories?

Blog: Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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