April 10 marks Equal Pay Day this year in the U.S, and it’s not exactly a day of celebration, signaling as it does the number of days a woman has to work in 2018 to equal the salary of the average male worker in 2017 — 100 days of extra female labor, for those keeping score. The day is different in every country, because every country has a different pay gap based on gender. But while women earn less than men all over the world, some places are … well, less bad than others.
According to a newly released report:
Belgium has the lowest wage gap between men and women for full-time workers of any country in the European Union.
That gap has also shrunk significantly — it’s now 1.1 percent, less than a third of what it was in 2007. Compare that to 10.5 percent in notoriously gender-aware Sweden or 19.5 percent in the U.S., and it’s worth asking what Belgium is doing right. The answer: institutionalizing pay scales. Rather than allowing raises — or the lack thereof — willy-nilly, and at the whim of managers who somehow just happen to see men’s work as worth more (thanks, patriarchy!), Belgium has gone hard on setting pay scales via collective bargaining agreements across industries, meaning men and women with the same job have to be paid the same amount.
To be sure, Belgium doesn’t have all the answers. The pay gap still yawns wide for part-time workers — statistically more likely to be women in positions that are more precarious than full-time gigs. Forty-five percent of women in Belgium work part time, while only 11 percent of men do, notes Inga Verhaert, chairwoman of Belgium’s Equal Pay Day campaign. Plus, work in traditionally female-weighted industries like child care tends to be paid less than work in more male-dominated fields.
Belgium went so far as to pass legislation designed to evaluate the pay gap, according to Verhaert. Two years after the 2012 law went into effect, companies from across the country were required to report on what they had done to address the gender pay gap. “But not all companies produced the reports as they were meant to,” Verhaert says, “and those who did had provided shoddy work.”
Similar laws in Iceland, she says, worked far better, because companies that didn’t comply were sanctioned. So countries hoping to narrow the gap can look north as well: Consequences for companies with consistent gender pay gaps could ensure compliance, and strengthening of pay-scale systems could mean men’s work isn’t overcompensated when men do the exact same job as their female colleagues. Culturally ingrained ideologies that place less monetary value on traditionally female work, though, may be harder to change.
Meanwhile, some firms in the U.S. and elsewhere are trying a similar tactic: banning salary negotiation. Studies show that negotiations favor men — partly because women are more reluctant to negotiate, but also because research indicates that women who do negotiate aren’t rewarded for it and instead are viewed unfavorably for their efforts.
But things are moving forward in Verhaert’s view. “The progressive women’s movement has been campaigning on this issue for 14 years, and we notice a difference,” she says. “For instance, people now agree there is such thing as a gender pay gap.”
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.