Gender, pay and career advancement

Possible dialogue between companies and researchers?

The question of occupational equality between men and women is not new, and it is continuously reshaped by changes in society and companies. The gender pay gap varies greatly depending on how it is studied and measured; e.g., with respect to full or part-time work, private or public-sector employees, etc. The fact remains that in France in 2015, women working full time in the private sector were found to have earned as much as 18.6% less than their male counterparts [source Insee]. One question today concerns the persistence of this gender pay gap in OECD countries, where gender differences in labour market participation have eroded and working women now have more years of education than men. Another concerns the persistence of unequal career advancement possibilities for men and women, the so-called “glass ceiling”.

Research seeking to explain these phenomena has identified three interdependent factors. The first is family life-work balance or reconciliation. Several studies demonstrate that men and women spend different amounts of time on domestic work; moreover, the responsibility for organizing and coordinating daily life still rests primarily with women and mothers. This in turn impacts on their careers, due to maternity leave, a switch to part-time work, or simply less involvement work or the acceptance of jobs involving less responsibility. The second factor concerns decisions made earlier in life, those of orientation and career choice. While girls spend more time in school, they are still much more present in humanities courses whereas more boys study engineering, a discipline that leads to higher paying jobs. Last but not least, social norms, gender-related determinants forged from early childhood, may influence individuals’ education and training choices, job-seeking practices, bargaining abilities, and ability to self-project within a company.

Researchers need to understand these phenomena, to construct explanatory models, and to quantify the relative importance of each determinant. The applications of such research are quite concrete, and include correcting existing public policies and developing government incentives. Meanwhile, companies in France are now required by law to ensure gender equality and can be sanctioned if they fail to establish internal policies for overcoming existing gaps. These are complex, multidimensional problems that seldom admit of obvious or quick solutions. However, companies’ human resources departments have little time or means to analyse in any detail the data they collect, data that would have much to tell them about their employees’ trajectories at the company.

It is in this context that original partnerships have been drawn up between INED researchers and a few major French companies (L’Oréal, Michelin, Electricité de France, and an airline company). The fundamental principle in this collaboration is total researcher independence. This includes absolute freedom to choose topics and approaches, and the injunction to communicate research studies and results to the companies and employees involved. In this arrangement, companies make their anonymized management and personnel files available to researchers, together with a number of institutional documents (labour accords, company charters, etc.), so that the researchers may acquire in-depth understanding of the mechanisms at work. In exchange, the companies acquire some perspective on their practices and can find out whether their own analyses of the situation are confirmed or invalidated. Of course, not all the mechanisms that produce gender-based inequalities can be tested using company data; by definition, the files contain only information that is useful to companies in  managing their personnel. Researchers will find little on employees’ family constraints or their work experience before coming to the company. To study those questions, which pertain to how workers fit together their family and work lives, general population surveys are indispensable. However, having access to company data offers researchers a unique occasion to examine the mechanisms that produce gender inequality in pay and careers, to identify the moments where those gaps occur, and to test the validity of certain models. Each company is of course a specific case, and what it observed in one cannot necessarily be generalized to others. But a solid corpus of research composed of many different studies will be of great use in public policy and new general population survey design.

In some of the companies studied, there is no gender pay gap at the time of hiring once such factors as educational attainment are controlled for. Differences seem instead to develop in the course of work careers. This was also found for the careers of flight attendants working for a commercial airline. In that line of work, characterized by strong geographic mobility and unstable work hours, there are more female than male flight attendants in the cabin whereas most pilots are men. While women’s supposed empathy and aptitude for service seem to make them better suited to the emotion-based work required to serve passengers, they are also promoted less often, especially because more women than men in this sector work part time for longer periods. But quantitative studies are not enough. Qualitative approaches (interviews, observation, etc.) are needed if we wish to understand the meaning that these men and women attribute to their jobs, their perceptions of mobility (as constraint or resource), and how they represent possible difficulties in fitting together private and work life. In sum, human resources files are indeed a new and important source of data, but they have to be processed and analysed in context.

Contact: Anne Lambert, Marion LeturcqDominique Meurs and Delphine Remillon

Online: March 2018