Visiting the Women in Revolt! exhibition of feminist art at Tate Britain last weekend, a cartoon cover of 1970s socialist women’s liberation magazine Red Rag leapt out to me from beneath the cabinet glass.
“Rather than give you more money, I would put a man on your machine,” read the speech bubble emitting from a male top-hatted employer and directed at an aproned female manufacturing worker.
It’s an illustration of the dismissive tenor of the gender pay battles of the era, of course. I’m almost sure the women who lingered over it did so because the explicit Made-in-Dagenham-style hostility seemed antiquated, not because the attitude is one that remains uncomfortably recognisable today.
Five decades on, December has become Irish gender pay gap reporting season. In the bleak midwinter, what better way is there for a woman to feel uplifted than to read a fresh batch of those reports that larger employers are now statutorily compelled to publish at this time of year? I know these page-turners always cheer me up.
The week before Christmas 2022, for instance, was delightfully enlivened for me by the inaugural hat-trick of such publications by RTÉ, Irish Independent publisher Mediahuis Ireland and The Irish Times.
True, my favourite line in all of last year’s reports didn’t hail from a media company, but from the male boss of a major retailer who observed that most of its employees were women, “a fact we are incredibly proud of”. I don’t know why he was proud of this – these weren’t oil rigs he was running. But, as it goes, the same pride could not be shared by either RTÉ, Mediahuis Ireland or The Irish Times.
As of June 2022, some 52 per cent of RTÉ's workforce, 61 per cent of Mediahuis Ireland’s employees and 65 per cent of The Irish Times staff were male. The Irish Times noted that its balance improved to 58 per cent men to 42 per cent women if its Citywest printing plant was excluded – among editorial staff, the ratio was 62 per cent men to 38 per cent women.
So how did their gender pay gaps measure up? The gap was smallest at RTÉ, where women earned 11.55 per cent less on average based on hourly earnings, according to its mean gender pay gap, while its median (or midpoint) gender pay gap was just more than 13 per cent.
The Irish Times was next, although women employees again earned significantly less than their male colleagues, with a mean gender pay gap of 14.47 per cent and a median gap of 20.39 per cent. At Mediahuis Ireland, women earned an average of 22.3 per cent less than male employees, with the median pay gap standing at 24.4 per cent.
The gender pay gap at all three organisations was notably wider than the 9.6 per cent gap in mean hourly earnings across the State in 2022 measured by the Central Statistics Office (CSO).
So what’s going on? I’d probably need walls the size of the ones at Tate Britain to give what I believe is the full answer for why the Irish media sector performs so poorly on the gender pay gap. But there are two coexisting trends here: an over-representation of men at the top and an over-representation of women at the bottom.
In The Irish Times, only 22 per cent of the company’s upper quartile pay band and only 32 per cent of the upper-middle pay band were women, while women were over-represented in the lower quartile, accounting for 43 per cent of this group – higher than their overall representation of 35 per cent.
If I was a female graduate looking to enter the Irish media sector today, I’d study its underperformance on gender pay
Likewise, at Mediahuis Ireland, the best-paid individuals within the company were far more likely to be men. Only 25 per cent of its upper quartile band were women, while 53 per cent of the lower quartile were women, despite female employees only representing 39 per cent of its workforce.
In RTÉ, much of the issue was also to do with men being more likely to be employed in operations roles where overtime rates of pay were available: without this factor, the broadcaster’s gender pay gap would be a mean 10 per cent, which is close to the national average, and a median 6.79 per cent.
This reminds me of the chicken-and-egg question of the gender pay gap: do men tend to dominate certain jobs because they are higher paid, or do those jobs become higher paid because it is men who tend to dominate them?
In any case, last Christmas was merely the starting point for the data. This month marks the second December that the Gender Pay Gap Information Act has required companies with 250 or more employees to reveal their gender pay gaps – based on a “snapshot” date in June – in a document made publicly available on their websites.
Soon, we will find out from the sequels whether those “what next” bits in last year’s reports – the various commitments for closing wide pay gaps and achieving that elusive phenomenon, a gender-balanced management – were serious blueprints for the near future or not.
More media companies will be pulled into the reporting loop from next year, too, when the requirements extend to organisations with more than 150 employees.
Alas, the Government has not yet got a centralised, searchable website in place, with the Department of Equality recently admitting it has “no timeline” for establishing this promised resource. Any woman who wants to do a spot of compare-and-contrast research between prospective employers will have to do their own labour as usual.
This is where it must be stressed that the presence of a gender pay gap is not evidence that men and women are being paid unequally for equal work – thanks to the campaigning efforts of feminists, that has been illegal since the end of 1975.
Instead, the reports should be taken primarily as helpful, if limited, exercises in transparency. The obligation upon companies to publish them each year is important.
Still, if I was a female graduate looking to enter the Irish media sector today, I’d study its underperformance on gender pay, I’d wonder what exactly was happening and I’d question my chance of beating the odds. If that sounds dispiriting, that’s because it is.