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The wage gap, what is it exactly?
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Human Resources

The wage gap, what is it exactly?

The wage gap, what is it exactly? The simplest explanation is that the figure (usually for a country or region) reflects the percentage of working women who, on average, earn less when compared to working men. This sounds like a simple calculation, so why do the media report so many different figures?
by Kim De Meulenaere, PhD | February 20, 2023
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To illustrate: In September 2022, the media was still raving that the wage gap was practically zero (Gender wage gap almost completely closed in 2020 - in Wallonia women were earning more than men | VRT NWS: news): according to their coverage, Flanders was left with a wage gap of only 0,4%. On January 23 2023, the High Employment Report mentioned a pay gap of 8,5% (note: based on 2018 data). Then again, according to European calculations, we are left with a Belgian wage gap of 5,3% (note: based on 2020 data).

So ‘the’ wage gap does not exist...

At first glance, the above seems like an unambiguous calculation, but actually, different calculations are used. For instance, there is a big difference between the unadjusted pay gap, which simply calculates the difference in average gross pay, and the adjusted pay gap, which corrects the pay gap for elements that can explain the pay gap. A common correction factor is the difference between part-time and full-time work: a part-time wage is logically lower on average than the wage of a full-time workers. The same is true for the hourly wage of a part-time employee: on average, it is lower than a full-time hourly wage, for several reasons, including the fact that part-time workers are less likely to be promoted, and therefore less likely to earn higher wages. More women than men work.

The question of whether such an adjustment for part-time work is justified, is itself open to debate. Indeed, one can ask whether it is one's own choice, or rather a necessity, that women are more likely to switch to part-time work. 4 out of 5 part-time workers are women. According to EUROSTAT, the main reason is childcare. Among men working part-time, the main reason is that they cannot find a full-time position or that they are still in training. However, whether part-time work among women is a result of free choice is important. And so is the question of whether it is appropriate that the media appears to report mainly the adjusted pay gap.

As mentioned earlier, as recently as September, several media reported with praise that the wage gap was practically zero: according to the reports, we are down to a 0,4 per cent wage gap in Flanders. But those who read further discovered that this wage gap only applied to full-time workers. The wage gap for part-time workers is still sky-high, at around 16 per cent.

The High Council for Employment is aware of the questions surrounding women's free choice of part-time work. In its report, it highlights the importance of good childcare and encouraging equal sharing of parental leave between both parents. These investments can at least help alleviate the need for women to work part-time.

Are countries with a smaller pay gap more gender equal?

No, not necessarily.

The pay gap is sometimes used as a parameter to show how emancipated a country is in terms of gender equality. While we should be proud that Belgium, with its relatively low pay gap (5,3%), scores better than the European average (Gender pay gap statistics - Statistics Explained (europa.eu)), we need to keep our feet on the ground. A low pay gap does not necessarily mean that we live in a gender-equal country.

One reason why our wage gap is so low is because the calculation only takes into account people who are actually working. In Belgium, there is a big difference between the employment rates of high- and low-skilled women. According to STATBEL data, only 26,6% of low-skilled women were working in 2021, compared to 81,9% of high-skilled women. That difference also exists between high- and low-skilled men, but it is smaller (40,5% of low-skilled men and 86,6% of high-skilled men worked in 2021). So there are relatively more highly educated women's wages in the calculation of the wage gap. Among men, the mix of highly and lowly educated in the calculation is larger.

Therefore, if in the future an equal number of men and women go to work - and we get especially low-skilled women in the labor market - there is a danger that the wage gap will grow back. After all, those low wages depress women's average wages; for men that effect will be smaller. But that does not mean that Belgium will therefore become more gender unequal.


In short: a smaller wage gap may occur in countries with lower female labor force participation, where mainly women with higher earning potential (e.g. women who are better educated) participate in the labor market. But it is difficult to argue that these countries are more gender equal than countries where women's labor force participation is higher....

Read Kim's interview with Trends about this topic here.

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