Why the government's latest wheeze to close the gender pay gap won't work

Forcing companies to disclose the average pay gap of their male and female staff misses the point, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


Raising a family takes time - transparent averages won't change that

The government has had it with the gender pay gap. It isn't disappearing in the way they instructed it to do. So, our MPs are busying themselves coming up with more and more nutty ways to force it to do so. The latest is to insist that firms or public sector bodies with more than 250 employees disclose the average pay (and bonus) difference between their male and female staff.

This isn't going to look good. Why? Because most companies have many more men in senior positions than they do women. "We are going to look awful", the head of one law firm told the FT. "But only because we don't have any female partners."

Women make up 47% of the work force, but only 34% of managers, directors and senior officials. I was on the panel of The Big Debate last week (it is a BBC Scotland radio show), and was at one point asked what could be done about this shocking stat. "Outlaw childbirth", I said. It sounded flippant at the time, and the audience all chuckled a little. But I wasn't joking.

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Equal pay for equal work is already a legal requirement (note that Birmingham had to sell the NEC exhibition complex earlier this year to pay off a £1bn bill for not meeting it), and mostly we do get equal pay for equal work.

In our 20s and early 30s, most women work in much the same way as men. Pay rates reflect that (in fact, between the ages of 22 and 29, women on average earn slightly more than men). There is no paygap for women that age. There is only one after it after the age at which we start to have our children.

Being pregnant is distracting (well, I find it distracting anyway). Giving birth takes time. Breast-feeding takes time. Double alpha families are almost impossible to run (see my previous blog post on this). Transparent averages can't change any of that.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.