Why is there a gender pay gap between male and female pilots, and what can we do to address it?

‘EasyJet recently revealed a 45% gender pay gap, which they link to a shortage of female pilots despite their attempts to recruit more in,” says Human Resource Management expert.
Date: 19 December 2017

Last month, it was revealed that there was a 45% gender pay gap at easyjet. At a glance, this is astonishing but unfortunately, this is not uncommon in higher skilled jobs in the UK.

The gender pay gap is the difference between the gross hourly earnings of all men and women in the labour market. This is different from unequal pay, which would infer that female pilots at easyJet are paid differently to their male counterparts, when collectively agreed pay rates ensure that they are not.

One of the main causes of the gender pay gap is occupational segregation including how women are concentrated into jobs that are low paying. This is illustrated at easyJet where just 6% of its pilots are women, who are paid on average £94,200 compared to a 69% of its cabin crew that are women, and are paid on average £24,800.

On a more positive note, 38% of easyJet’s administrative and managerial workforce are women, with an average salary of £53,700. However, classifying administrative and managerial positions under one category is problematic because it is likely to conceal further occupational segregation within this group. Statistics on the demographic background of easyJet’s senior and middle management team help illustrate this point, with a 23.1% and 33% share of women in each group respectively. It is therefore likely that women tend to be concentrated in the lower paying administrative functions, thereby widening the pay gap at easyJet further.

However, these statistics are not unique to easyJet. These figures are representative of the wider UK labour market. For example, 35% of managers, directors and senior officials are women, and 45% of associate professional and technical workers (the category pilots would fall under) are women. This compares to 75% of administrative and secretarial workers, and 82% of care, leisure and service workers (the category cabin crew would fall under) who are women. The problem is the occupations where women tend to be concentrated are lower skilled and therefore lower paid, thus contributing to the UK gender pay gap at 18.4%.

So who is to blame for this? There are ‘structural’ factors that constrain women’s career choices once they start a family. The welfare state in the UK provides minimal publically funded childcare compared to many other EU countries, and this combined with relatively expensive private childcare rates means that many women are forced into reducing their hours. The problem is there is often a part time pay penalty because many of the jobs that are advertised as part time in the UK are in the lower skilled occupations.

However, employers are not entirely blameless. The Right to Request Flexible Working allows all workers to ask their employer to make a change to their hours, for example from full time to part time. Whilst research shows that 75% of employers accept any requests made, there is also evidence that workloads are not being sufficiently reduced by managers. This leaves many women working full time jobs in part time hours, and for part time pay.

In many high skilled jobs the problem is compounded by a ‘male model of working,’ whereby organisational commitment is demonstrated by working long and unpredictable hours. The argument follows that women who switch to part time hours are often perceived as less committed than their full time (often male) counterparts even if they are as, if not more, productive. The combination of high workloads and the pressure to work long hours can render part time jobs unsustainable for many women with care responsibilities. Employers who have identified occupational segregation as a cause for the gender pay gap in their organisation, like easyJet,should focus on alleviating these pressures in order to retain and develop female talent.

To tackle this issue, easyJet launched the Amy Johnson initiative in 2015 which aims to encourage more women to train for a career as a pilot. The main emphasis is on breaking down gender stereotypes and attracting more women into the job. It also includes support to retain women in pilot roles including mentoring, as well as flexible work options such as part time working. It is interesting to note how effective easyJet’s flexible working policies are at retaining female pilots. The Amy Johnson initiative might be successful at recruiting women into the role, but it would be problematic, and costly, if easyJet struggled to retain female workers longer term, and develop them up the hierarchy.

An audit of the female pilots who have progressed up to Captain level might indicate they have done so because they continued to work full time after starting a family. This potentially discriminates against those who do not have domestic arrangements that allow them to continue working full time; for example, single mothers, those who have a partner who also works long hours, and those who cannot rely on informal support from grandparents.

Clearly the very nature of the airline industry is somewhat family unfriendly. It includes long and unsocial hours, and then there is the issue of delayed flights and being far away from home if your child is ill. Airlines should be focusing on implementing HR policies to help pilots alleviate these tensions but should also do more to promote their good work, and tackle perceptions that it cannot be a family friendly job. This might be around promoting what flexible working looks like as a pilot, and to what extent you can develop in your career whilst doing so. A training loan of £109,000 is a bitter pill to swallow if you cannot envisage staying or developing in that career long term.

Recommendations

  • The UK government needs to invest more in policies that support families to share care responsibilities, and limit the structural factors that constrain women’s career choices. Many of the family friendly policies that UK workers benefit from came through EU provisions (e.g. statutory parental leaves and pay) so with the advent of Brexit, and in the context of austerity it is unlikely that any such proactive action will be implemented. As such, the onus is on employers to help workers reconcile any work-life conflict issues in their workforce. 
  • EasyJet, and other firms facing gender pay gaps caused by occupational segregation, should also undertake detailed gender equality audits focusing on the barriers for part time workers, which may be causing retention and progression issues. What proportion of women working in higher skilled jobs (pilots and managerial) are employed on a part time basis? In addition, how many have progressed their careers whilst doing so (from first officer to Captain)? Staff satisfaction surveys and exit interviews may also be informative.
  • Policies should also be put in place so that organizational commitment is not being demonstrated through working long hours for all workers. This recommendation is aimed particularly at easyJet’s administrative/managerial function, and would involve significant training and monitoring of line managers to avoid it continuing into the future. 
  • The Amy Johnson initiative should be extended to tackle perceptions around the sustainability of women’s careers as a pilot. EasyJet and other airlines may already be implementing family friendly work policies to help retain female pilots when they start a family, but they may need to focus on promoting these more publically. Tackling women’s stereotypes about careers as a pilot might be as much about it being perceived as ‘family unfriendly’ as it being male dominated per se.


Dr Jo Cartwright is a senior lecturer in Human Resource Management MA and Human Resource Management PG Dip at London Metropolitan University. She is available for further commentary.

Please contact Charlotte White on 020 7133 2467 or c.white1@londonmet.ac.uk for further commentary or for an interview with Dr Cartwright.