“Did you know that, on average, women in the Netherlands earn 32 percent less than men who do the same job?” presenter Petra Grijzen asked her male co-hosts on BNR Radio. “Well, I’ve completed 68 percent of my shift for today, so guys, best of luck with the show!” Grijzen said, after which she left the recording studio.

Of course, it was a bit of a stunt, but it did generate a great deal of publicity for the study carried out by RSM professor Henk Volberda. Volberda is the Dutch ‘branch manager’ of a huge study conducted in 144 countries focusing on inequality between males and females: the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (see box). However, after the stunt, the publicity offensive took a wrong turn.

Percentage removed

Following BNR’s broadcast, a vehement and, according to Volberda, occasionally “extreme” discussion on the payment inequality gap ensued on Twitter. RTL blogger and financial risk manager Ilja Boelaars insisted that the percentage was wrong, or, at any rate, that it did not mean that women earn 32 percent less than men doing the same work. Not long after the broadcast, the percentage was removed (without any explanation) from the press release about the study published on EUR’s website.

According to RTL, Volberda initially denied that he had had the percentage removed. “I don’t know what kind of press release you received. The article on the website is the original press release. It was not revised in any way,” he was quoted as saying about the matter in an RTL story. Yet Volberda insists that he never quite put it like that, and that he merely said that the press release “had not been rewritten”. However, the controversial percentage can still be found in Google’s cache, in Volberda’s own by-now-removed tweets and in the original press release in EM’s e-mail archive.

So what is the big deal with the 32 percent number? Why was it removed? And do women really earn one third less for similar work? We thought it was high time we talked to Henk Volberda himself.

Global Gender Gap Report

Overzicht van de Nederlandse score

World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 seeks to provide a scientific but easy-to-understand analysis of the gender inequality gap. Each year, WEF compares over 140 countries across four key areas that provide an insight into the rate of inequality between men and women: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The degree of gender inequality is determined on the basis of fourteen indicators. In the Netherlands, 76% of the gender gap has been closed, which means the country ranks 16th in the Gender Gap Index.

The ‘pay equality for similar work’ indicator, which was what all the fuss was about, is one of five data points in the ‘economic participation and opportunity’ sub-index, and the only indicator that was based on survey results. The other data points – men and women’s economic participation, the number of women versus the number of men in senior management positions, the number of women versus the number of men who hold a technical and professional position, and men and women’s estimated annual salaries – are all based on hard data.

Henk Volberda.

Why was the mention of the 32 percent removed from the press release?

“I feel that one cannot infer from this report that women earn 32 percent less than men doing the same work. And that is not what the report contends. The subtle distinctions were lost in the debate that ensued after the publication of the report, and I didn’t want that to happen. That’s why the 32 percent number was removed from the press release. But there really continues to be quite a gap. I stand behind the conclusion that the 32-percent gender pay gap between males and females doing similar work has not yet been closed. Also, we added the 391-page study report to each of our press releases. Anyone could have learned from this just how the gender pay gap for men and women doing the same work was determined.”

So how was the 32-percent gender pay gap calculated?

“In the study component ‘Economic Participation and Equal Opportunity’ we look at five indicators. This is only one of those, and it is the only factor that is not based on hard data, but rather on a survey, the Executive Opinion Survey. Two hundred high-ranking Dutch managers were presented with the question, ‘In your country, to what extent are women’s wages equal to men’s for similar work?’ The answer involved a seven-point scale. The number one represented ‘not at all – women’s wages are significantly lower than men’s’, while number seven signified ‘women’s wages are completely equal to men’s’. We arrived at a score of 4.78, which amounts to 68 percent after normalisation (4.78 divided by 7). In other words, a 32-percent gap. We have been asking this question for years, and the Netherlands consistently receives a sub-par score. We are well behind countries like Norway, Iceland and Finland.”

But this does not actually show that there is a 32-percent gender pay gap?

“Not in absolute terms, but this report does show that managers believe that there is a pay gap, according to this report. Moreover, other studies have shown that there really is quite a gap. For starters, hard data that have been included in the Gender Gap Index show that the estimated annual salary gap (not corrected for position or level of experience) between men and women is 52 percent. Furthermore, a report recently published by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) shows that the gender pay gap in the business community amounted to 20 percent in 2014, without any correction for things such as level of education, position or the sector in which the parties involved were active (according to Statistics Netherlands, the gap amounts to 7 percent in cases where men and women hold the same rank – ES). Moreover, the gender pay gap increases after age 30, and it is much wider in higher ranks. According to Statistics Netherlands, the gap amounted to a whopping 34 percent in equivalent management positions, based on 2012 income data.”

Why do you look at survey results rather than at actual wages?

“In an ideal world, we would be looking at payroll records for this study, but that is impossible. First, the Gender Gap Index is a comparative study of 144 countries, so I personally don’t have much of a say in the methodology used. Secondly, we keep pretty good records here in the Netherlands, but that definitely isn’t the case for all participating countries. And we do want to use the exact same research methodology for all 144 countries. However, I have been triggered to the point where I want to look into this myself now, outside the context of the World Economic Forum.”

What exactly do you wish to investigate?

“I don’t want to conduct general research, like Statistics Netherlands, but rather look into certain stratifications of higher management. I’d like to include extraordinary payments in that study. When people get to the level where wages are up for negotiation, the gap clearly widens. And you’d think that, what with a collective agreement in place, all full professors would earn equal wages. But there is a wide gap – for instance, because people hold additional positions.”

Looking back on the fracas, how do you feel about it?

“I learned a lesson. I got these horrible tweets asking me to remove the 32 percent from the press release, and rather than focusing on the many aspects of the gender gap, people only wished to discuss the question as to whether there is a gender pay gap. So we said, all right, we will remove the percentage, and instead we will simply say there is a substantial gap. And then they used that fact to attack us.”

Why didn’t you contact the media as soon as the misunderstanding was arising? That would have been better than quietly removing the percentage from the press release.

“I did contact the media! I provided an extensive explanation to Governance Update magazine.”

Which, obviously, no one on Twitter reads!

“That is not my fault. At first I did tweet about it, but I shouldn’t have. And then my tweet about the 32 percent was taken out of context. The ensuing Twitter discussion resulted in both Petra Grijzen and myself receiving a lot of nasty tweets. You should see the kind of stuff people write. That’s why I removed it.”

In summary: will you be doing things differently next year?

“I fully support the study design. The gender pay gap between people doing similar work is just one of five indicators in one of the four sub-indexes of the study. This one indicator – the only one that was based on a survey – received too much attention. What it was all about to me is that there is a significant gap between men and women, which actually constitutes discrimination. That’s what the discussion should be about. From now on we will publicise the index differently. We don’t want another repeat of this.”