The Gender Pay Trap: Five factors trapping women in a cycle of workplace inequality

  • New study identifies the ‘Gender Pay Trap’, a vicious cycle of five gender biases running through the modern workplace: lower salary expectations, imbalanced pay rises and bonuses, a low awareness of gender inequality, an increased likelihood of equality-related resignations and the unconscious bias hiding in job ads.
  • Women’s average salary expectations in 2020 are £7,058 lower than that of men, the same relative difference as 2016 – showing scarcely any change in gender fortunes.
  • Awareness of terms relating to equality is low, with 82% of UK workers unable to correctly define what the gender pay gap is, and 4 in 5 (79%) of men unable to define the term ‘mansplaining’.
  • Analysis of over 300,000 job ads found the language employed for senior roles that include terms such as ‘Chief’, ‘Lead’ and ‘Manager’ are biased towards male applicants.
  • Professor Gillian Ku, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, shares the expert tips you need to ask for a pay rise and break out of the Gender Pay Trap.
  • Read Professor Ku’s advice along with the full Totaljobs report at:

Combining unique job ad data and survey insights, leading UK job board Totaljobs has uncovered a pernicious cycle of gender biases affecting women in the workplace. Known as the Gender Pay Trap, it contributes to and exacerbates the UK’s existing gender pay gap issue, resulting in increased disappointment, disillusionment and ultimately, resignations amongst women in the workforce.

Don’t ask, don’t get

The problems begin at the very start with wage negotiations. In a survey of over 2,000 UK workers, Totaljobs found that women’s average salary expectations were £28,067 vs £35,125 for their male counterparts. A difference of £7,058 (25%), equivalent to what was discovered by Totaljobs in 2016[1], resulting in no improvement after 4 years.

The cost of unequal pay

These initial salary shortfalls come with an additional cost, as identified in Stage 2 of the Gender Pay Trap. Women in the workforce don’t just have different expectations when it comes to wages, but also suffer from a gap in the additional financial rewards they receive.

Contrary to popular opinion, women receive pay rises as much as men do – but they usually end up receiving £496 (35%) less on average.

And, despite an improvement in the figure since 2016, women are less likely to receive a bonus.[2] When they do, they can still expect to see a smaller figure on their payslip, and an average of £809 (56%) less than their male co-workers.

The reason for these deficit gaps likely has roots in the existing cultural and behavioural expectations of the UK workplace. Nearly three quarters of women (72%) said they don’t feel comfortable asking for a rise. A third of these (32%) said it was because they simply don’t feel confident enough, and a quarter (25%) do not want to jeopardise their relationship with their manager.

The awareness gap

The good news is that most of us (3 in 4 people) have heard of the gender pay gap. The bad news is we’re not particularly good at defining it. When asked, 82% of those surveyed got the definition of the gender pay gap wrong.

This is where Stage 3 of the Gender Pay Trap takes up, with low awareness from the people making up the UK’s workforce with terms associated with gender inequality, such as ‘glass ceiling’ (43% aware), ‘glass cliff’ (7% aware) and ‘tokenism’ (18% aware).

However, ‘equal opportunity’ is the one term the majority (85%) are familiar with.

Indeed, only 3 in 10 women think they currently work for an organisation that pays employees fairly, regardless of gender, age and ethnicity. Only 37% of both men and women now believe their employer pays everyone fairly compared to 43% in 2016.

Sad resignation

Stage 4 of the Gender Pay Trap concerns the link between perceptions of equality in the workplace and job satisfaction. If you think you’re being paid unfairly, you’re twice as likely to feel unhappy at work.

This isn’t just a problem for women, it’s a problem for employers too – unhappy employees don’t stick around. 6 in 10 people who think their company is guilty of unequal pay aren’t happy working there.

This dissatisfaction leads many women to take definitive action. Nearly half (48%) claim they would quit their job over unequal pay.

And so, the Gender Pay Trap strikes again with Stage 5, with one last hidden challenge in store for those now searching for a new role.

The secret bias of job ads

Searching for equality in a new job is harder than you might think. Why? Because by studying nearly 350,000 job adverts posted in October 2019, Totaljobs has found that job ads themselves remain loaded with hidden gender bias.

Gender stereotypes lead us to subconsciously label certain words as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. When job ads contain more masculine words, people imagine more men work in these occupations. This has been shown to deter women from applying for a role.[3]

Vacancies for more lucrative and senior titles such as ‘Chief’ (52%), ‘Lead’ (71%) and ‘Manager’ (44%) all contained language skewed towards male applicants. On the flip side, job adverts for ‘Assistant’ level roles contained more female-biased language overall (67%).

With the language in ads for higher paid roles targeted, however unwittingly, towards men, the Gender Pay Trap finds itself coming full circle. Facing a glass ceiling built of gender-biased language that dissuades many from applying for the top roles, women find themselves back at Stage 1: applying for lower level roles than what they should go for, and harbouring lower salary expectations than their male co-workers.

The Gender Pay Trap it seems, is ready to start all over again. But it doesn’t have to continue like this.

Breaking out of the Gender Pay Trap

Gillian Ku, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, shared her expert advice with Totaljobs on how you can set appropriate salary expectations for yourself and gain the confidence needed to ask for that all-important pay rise to bust out of the Trap.

Professor Gillian Ku comments;

“It’s heartening to see that organisations are taking the gender pay gap seriously and are looking to better understand it. It’s important that workers feel more confident in their demands for greater rewards at work. They often lack information – about what they’re worth, what the standards are and what else they could negotiate as part of a package.

“By providing workers, women in particular, with these actionable tips to gain confidence and better negotiate their financial rewards, I hope we can make progress and narrow the pay gap.”

Additionally, Totaljobs urges recruiters to put their job adverts under the lens of the Gender Bias Decoder, to identify potentially non-inclusive language and reduce or balance the number of gendered words from their job ads to bring in the most diverse workforce a role, and their organisation, can get.

Lynn Cahillane, Head of Marketing at Totaljobs, comments;

“The five stages of the Gender Pay Trap feed into one another and contribute to the wider gender pay gap and gender disparity at work. By being aware of each stage, employers and managers can target and find solutions to get us closer to reducing the gap.

“Testing out job adverts for gender bias, challenging processes for salary reviews, educating staff on unconscious bias and ensuring employees are fairly rewarded for their work and are empowered to progress and can all make an impact in 2020.

“It’s a multi-faceted issue and a hard one to break out from, but businesses can play their part towards long lasting progress – and we can start by looking at the role we play in the Gender Pay Trap cycle ourselves to start breaking out.

“That’s why Totaljobs has launched the Gender Bias Decoder, which we hope will help employers to check job descriptions for any unconscious bias. The aim of the decoder is not to finger-point, but to enable employers to improve their diversity and help them hear from the best applicants, regardless of gender.”

– ENDS –

Notes to editors:

  • Financial rewards and salary expectations data: Totaljobs research of 4,724 UK workers in October 2016 and 2,197 UK workers in November 2019
  • Job ads data: analysis of 341,466 Totaljobs Group adverts posted in October 2019.
  • Gender bias definitions:
    • Female-biased job ads are those with more female-coded words than male-coded.
    • Male-biased job ads are those with more male-coded words than female-coded.
    • Unbiased job ads are those with no gender-coded words.
    • Neutral job ads are those with equal number of male-coded and female-coded words.
    • For more information on methodology, see the Gender Bias Decoder

[1] Women typically expect to be paid £6,562 less than men – Totaljobs, 2016

[2] 37% of men vs 30% of women received a bonus in the last financial year – Totaljobs, 2020

[3] Study by Duke University and The University of Waterloo. Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C. Kay (2011), Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2011, Vol 101(1), p109-28).

About Totaljobs:

Formed in 1999, Totaljobs is one of UK’s leading job boards, attracting 20 million visits and over 4.3 million applications from qualified jobseekers every month. Over 300,000 jobseekers visit our platform every day, with over 270,000 jobs to choose from at any given time.

In May 2018, Totaljobs partnered with Jobsite to become the UK’s largest hiring platform offering employers the opportunity to advertise vacancies across both platforms from one system, and access to almost half of the UK working population.

Totaljobs and Jobsite are part of the StepStone Group, one of the world’s leading e-recruitment businesses. With a head office in London and offices in Birmingham, Havant, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Glasgow, StepStone in the UK comprises Totaljobs and Jobsite plus nine additional job boards. These include:, CatererGlobal, CWJobs, Milkround, CityJobs, RetailChoice, CareerStructure, JustEngineers and emedcareers. Together these brands provide access to 17.6 million searchable candidate profiles.