Why and how the gender pay gap affects health, Nitya Sarma

29 September 2015

The gender pay gap is the difference between men’s and women’s pay, based on the average difference in gross hourly earnings of all employees. On average, women in the EU earn around 16% less per hour than men. The gender pay gap varies across Europe. The lowest pay gap is in Slovenia (2.5%) and highest in Estonia (30%). The impact of the gender pay gap means that women earn less over their lifetimes, resulting in lower pensions and a risk of poverty in old age. In 2012, 21.7% of women aged 65 and over were at risk of poverty, compared to 16.3% of men.[1]

Men are generally paid more for the same amount of work than women, and female competencies are valued lower than male competencies. Women and men work in different jobs and often work in different sectors. For example, in the health sector, women make up 80% of all workers. Generally, sectors where women form the majority have lower wages than those dominated by men, meaning undervalued skills and knowledge in that sector in relation to pay. As women bear the burden of unpaid work, and care of children and elderly, they tend to work shorter hours. Women also usually work in sectors and occupations where jobs fit with their family responsibilities. As a result, women are more likely to work part-time, be employed in low-paid jobs, and not take on management positions.[2]  

Additionally, gender stereotyping has led to only a minority of women graduating with technical degrees in subjects such as engineering and computer science. As a result, there are fewer women in these industries. Gender stereotypes are traditional viewpoints where biological attributes are generalised to be making up social behaviour. One example could be that men are seen as less caring and thus not as able as women to work in care occupations. One step towards closing the gender pay gap would be to narrow the divide in gender representation across industries and diversifying job positions for women.[3]

Another issue is that women are expected to carry out most domestic tasks and provide care for older family members. This creates two problems regarding the overall workload of women in relation to their health: women are more likely to exit the workforce due to care-giving duties and are more likely to suffer from ill-health as a result of the amount of time they spend on paid and unpaid (domestic and care) work.[4]

The pay gap has a domino effect on pensions, which means that the pay gap not only affects a woman’s healthy living wage while employed, but also after retirement. Pensions are calculated by pay per hour, hours worked, and years worked.[5] On average, women receive pensions that are 40% lower than men’s.[6] This is unfair to female employees, who will need maternity leave and are also paid less than men by the hour. Steps to end pension inequalities between men and women require steps in eliminating the pay gap altogether.

In order to eliminate the pay gap, the EU is taking certain steps. The European Commission took the first step on the resolution of the pension issue. The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO) Council highlighted the importance of improving monitoring of the gender gap in pensions, analysing the implications and implementing a set of preventative measures.[7] Instituting the European Equal Pay Day also helped in raising awareness.[8]

With MEP Maria Noichl as rapporteur, the European Parliament published a report on the Strategy for equality between women and men post 2015. She underlined the importance of concentrating on persisting gaps, like the gender pay or pension gap in the future post-2015 EU strategy for equality between women and men.[9]

The updated Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health[10] will be launched at the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York, September 25-27, 2015.[11] One of the mains goals address gender equality, whereas the Strategy will emphasise equal access to healthcare, improvements in the quality of health services and equity in their coverage. While we have achieved progress in global gender equality and empowerment of women, addressing the gender pay gap remains an important issue.  


A first blog on "Gender equality in health, a realistic aim?" was also published on 22 June 2015. To read it, click here