Perhaps the only thing more wearisome than the polemics of so-called “equity feminists” is the depressingly glacial pace of progress in eradicating gender pay disparity, a material inequity that persists despite decades of effort to close the gap and the contrived logic of a vocal minority who deny its existence.

The coronavirus pandemic has reversed advances in many aspects of life, and according to pretty much all preliminary evidence, the gender pay gap is no exception to this rule. With corporate reporting rules temporarily suspended in the UK, the distorting statistical impact of furlough employment support, and the disproportionate loss of jobs among female workers, it could well be several years before the extent of the damage to female earning power comes fully to light.

Dispiriting as that is, there was further disheartening news earlier this week that the headway achieved in the years prior to the outbreak of Covid may not have been as considerable as previously thought.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that government policies have made almost no difference to the UK’s gender pay gap for the last 25 years. As of 2019, working-aged women earned on average 40 per cent less a week and £3.10 less per hour than men.

Although the 40% earnings gap is about 13 percentage points lower than in the mid-1990s, the report’s authors calculated that more than three-quarters of the reduction was the result of a rapid increase in educational attainment. Women of working age have gone from being 5 percentage points less likely, to 5 percentage points more likely, to have a university degree than men.

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One of the maxims of education and training is that by improving their skills and knowledge, workers become more valuable and will thus be more highly rewarded. To a certain degree the findings by the IFS back this up, but if educational attainment has accounted for the vast majority of gains of the past quarter century, it would seem we’ve run out of road on that particular path to progress.

In a further twist, the report found a “big break from the past” when gender differences in hourly wages were especially large among less educated workers. Thanks to the introduction of and increases to the UK’s minimum wage, the hourly pay gap among those who left school at the age of 16 has reduced to 17% in favour of men.

But whether it’s in terms of numbers in paid employment, the amount of hours worked or hourly pay, there’s been no progress in reducing the pay gap for graduates. Within these ranks, the IFS found that men earn an average of 23% more per hour than women.

One common assumption is that women need to up their game and make more of an effort when it comes to negotiating salary, developing new skills, networking and putting themselves forward for promotion. Dismissing the deeply ingrained structural, societal and business norms that impede the advancement of women as “victim feminism”, self-styled equity feminists such as American author Christina Hoff Sommers argue that the wage gap “narrows to the point of vanishing” when differences in occupations, education, job tenure or hours worked are taken into account.

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The pivotal question here is whether women freely choose to retreat from the workplace – particularly when children come onto the scene – or do they get caught between stark choices where something must inevitably give?

Despite the 2015 introduction of shared parental leave in the UK, women still take the bulk of time off after their children are born. Figures released earlier this year by law firm EMW showed that just 11,200 couples in Britain applied to use shared parental leave during the 12 months to the end of March, less than 2% of those who were eligible.

New mothers are also more likely than fathers to reduce their hours, find a more family-friendly but lower-paying job, or give up work altogether. Furthermore, they do almost two hours more unpaid work per day than men.

It is wrong to suggest that referencing such statistics is evidence of an irrational hostility towards men. Only through logical examination of circumstances as they truly exist is it possible to understand a problem and construct effective solutions.

Dr Jo Kandola, head of digital solutions at diversity and inclusion consultancy Pearn Kandola, argues that the root cause of the gender pay gap are stereotypes that will not be rectified by “fixing women”, but rather through an overhaul of the system.

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The IFS report calculated that the average 50-year-old female graduate spent 3.7 years working part-time, causing their hourly wage at age 50 to be 7.7% lower than it would have been if they had worked full-time for those years.

The research also found that gendered roles appear to be largely unrelated to earnings potential, with mothers who earn more than their male partners still more likely to reduce their hours in the years after childbirth.

The social conventions underlying this run through the genders, with two-fifths of both men and women in the UK agreeing that “a woman should stay at home when she has children under school age”. In a similar vein, Dr Kandola notes that increasing the presence of women on recruitment panels is an oft-punted suggestion for reducing the gender pay gap.

“That’s because where there is gender disparity, there is an assumption that it is caused by men,” she said. “But, what if women, including myself, are explicit in our own subordination?

“Our research…has found that women more easily associate men with competence than they do women. So, having gender balanced panels is unlikely to lead to different outcomes.”

Though clearly deeply ingrained, these constructs are not immutable. They’ve been sustained by a policy environment – and society at large – that implicitly accepts traditional gender norms. Coherent incentives to continue the narrowing of pay disparity will hinge on creating genuine equality between mothers and fathers in looking after their children.