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Why do we tolerate this? Reflections on Pension Inequality

Dr Naomi Elster shares her reflections from our Spring Conference and explores the link between closing the gender pay gap and the gender pensions gap

Naomi Elster

In this guest blog, Dr Naomi Elster, who leads the End Salary History Campaign with Fawcett East London and is a member of WBG’s Policy Advisory Group, shares her reflections from our Spring Conference 2024 – and explores the critical link between closing the gender pay gap and overcoming pension inequality.


At this year’s WBG annual conference, Dr Daniella Jenkins, speaking on pensions, put a critical question to the room:

“Why do we tolerate this?”

It’s a question women all over the world are still asking, around all kinds of issues. But it’s only really through the Women’s Budget Group that I’ve become aware of how urgently pension inequality needs to be addressed. Women’s pensions are typically   significantly lower than men’s, with the gap in private pension wealth standing at a jaw-dropping 90%, and longer life expectancy means those smaller figures need to be stretched out for longer.

It was particularly eye-opening to see a diagram, based on women of my generation, showing how many different and overlapping factors contribute to gendered pension inequality – and how many things, which I will only feel the impact of in several decades, are already at play. This includes, for women who were educated in the UK, being more likely to pay back their student loan over longer time periods than their male counterparts; barriers to home ownership as house prices have soared; and either the opportunity costs of unpaid work as a barrier to paid work, or the financial costs of outsourcing the unpaid care work women are expected to do to someone else so they can take up employment. And, of course, pension contributions are linked to paid employment.

Figure 1: Jenkins, 2024: 145

Earlier this year, analysis from CLES and WBG found that the economy in England, Scotland and Wales is losing out £100bn GVA annually as a result of the barriers to paid work encountered by women – such as caregiving responsibilities, gender bias in recruitment and attitudes towards aging cost. This is more than the contribution of the entire financial services sector in the UK.

However, I would argue that the full impacts of the gender pay gap are not known. Given how pervasive an issue it is, it seems understudied.

Why do we tolerate this?

Closing the gender pay gap and closing the gender pensions gap are not easy causes to advocate for. Part of the answer to “Why do we tolerate this?” may lie in the fact that many of us think of pay and pensions as individual matters. It is right to do what we can to empower individuals with knowledge, and with skills around such things as salary negotiation, savings and investments, and, of course, pensions. But you cannot always outsmart a system that is fundamentally rigged against you.

It’s hard to talk about what we are paid, which makes it difficult to advocate around the emotional, personal stories that are the lifeblood of many campaigns. It also requires a level of statistical knowledge that may feel inaccessible to some people to see the extent of the problem – to read the numbers and see the real-life impact, and to see that these issues are systemic and widespread. It’s the system that needs to change.

Closing the pay gap should sit within broader missions to make workplaces work for women, and to have women and all that we do seen and valued as we should be, which must go hand in hand with accessible and affordable early education and childcare as well as social care. It would also take a key plank out of the scaffolding that upholds pensions inequality.

Making canvassing a two-way conversation

With the general election less than a month away, and with a shorter run-up to it than many of us were expecting, we can all expect a flurry of campaigning around the country. This is an opportunity for us to let political parties and their representatives know what matters to us – but it can be hard to find the right words.

At Fawcett East London, we have prepared a short guide to empower people to ask their candidates about the gender pay gap. The leaflet contains facts, suggested questions, and things that individuals can do to help advocate for pay equality.

Please consider downloading and sharing the guide, and/or associated social media assets, all available free of charge here, with your network.

Small actions have big impacts

It was empowering to learn, at the workshop, that initiatives to make workplaces fairer, more caring, and more equitable right now could have a magnified positive impact down the line. Even if we are not in a position to directly make those changes, even being one supportive voice to the colleague trying to make them can make a real difference. We should never underestimate the positive impact we can have through starting conversations, or lending support to others.


The views and opinions expressed in this blogpost are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy position of the Women’s Budget Group.

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