The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Companies tweeted for International Women’s Day. Then this account called out their pay gaps.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

When Francesca Lawson and Ali Fensome, both 27, woke up in their Manchester, England, home on Tuesday morning — International Women’s Day — their Twitter account @PayGapApp had just over 2,000 followers, they said.

The pair, who are a couple, created the account last year to use government data on British companies’ gender pay gaps to call out companies tweeting about International Women’s Day.

Fensome, a software developer, built the account as a bot, writing code that leads it to perform the function listed in its Twitter bio: “Employers, if you tweet about International Women’s Day, I’ll retweet your gender pay gap,” it warns.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, @PayGapApp had gone viral, with more than 120,000 followers. It had also sent out hundreds of tweets calling out companies with information about their hourly median gender pay gaps.

Many social media users applauded the effort. “Brilliant,” one Twitter user wrote. “We need more public accountability — it’s the only way change is going to happen,” wrote another.

To Lawson, the account’s sudden popularity reflects consumers’ growing demand for transparency from companies who publicly campaign against inequities but may perpetuate them within their own workplaces.

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“You can’t say that you’re doing really well for equality if you’ve not got the numbers behind you to support it,” she added. “We don’t want to see nice headshots of your female employees. We don’t want to see panel discussions that you’re running. We want you to tell us how you’ve identified your problems, what you’re doing to fix them, and if you have something to shout about, if you’re doing really well — well, show us the data.”

Since 2017, the U.K. government has required companies with more than 250 employees to submit annual reports on their gender pay gaps based on payroll data. In 2020, the U.K.’s gender pay gap among all hourly employees was 15.5 percent, according to the Office for National Statistics — in other words, women earned about 85 percent of what men did on average. (Companies in the U.K. are not required by law to report ethnicity pay gaps.)

In the United States in 2020, women on average earned 83 percent of what men earned, according to the American Association of University Women. The disparities are starker along racial lines, with Black women being paid 64 percent of what White, non-Hispanic men did in 2020 and Latinas being paid 57 percent of what White men made that year, according to AAUW. Native American women typically earn only 60 percent of what White men earn, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which also notes that the wage gap typically stands at 85 percent for Asian American and Pacific Islander women.

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For many companies tweeting about International Women’s Day, a quote retweet from @PayGapApp hasn’t been desirable. The bot’s dispassionate preprogrammed tweets often highlight the contrast between companies’ splashy graphics and messages of support for their women employees and the realities of how much those women are underpaid.

The low-cost airline company Ryanair appeared to have one of the worst pay gaps the bot called out as of press time.

“In this organisation, women’s median hourly pay is 68.6% lower than men’s,” the bot tweeted over a faux movie poster graphic the airline company created, featuring a selection of its women employees under a banner calling them “the Flight Squad.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ryanair attributed the company’s pay gap to the fact that a majority of its U.K. pilots are men, noting that women have been historically underrepresented as pilots throughout the entire industry. (The national data set used by the bot is a measure across all jobs in the U.K., not of the difference in pay between men and women for doing the same job.)

To Lawson, these kinds of systemic disparities are all the more reason for @PayGapApp and similar initiatives to exist.

“We wanted to use this data to put it back in the spotlight in order to make people aware of the kind of challenges still going on and start conversations about trying to fix them,” she said.

Some accounts blocked @PayGapApp in response to the tweets, Lawson and Fensome said. Others responded to the tweets with more context on their gender pay gaps, noting that women make up the majority of workers in lower-paid roles. For some employers, the account highlighted where women’s median hourly pay is higher than men’s or equal to men’s.

Governments and employers can reduce the gender pay gap, according to a 2020 report by the National Women’s Law Center, by combating gender bias, raising the minimum wage, creating opportunities for women to advance within organizations, providing child care and family and medical leave, and supporting pay transparency and unionization among workers.

Lawson, a freelance copywriter and social media manager, came up with the idea last year to make the government data publicly available through a Twitter account after seeing companies “filling up social feeds and inboxes talking about events that they’re running” for International Women’s Day, she said.

“I had just started to feel really disheartened because a lot of it is … not backed up with any long-term action to improve gender equality,” she added.

When she brought the idea to Fensome on March 6 last year — two days before International Women’s Day — he got to work on building the bot, he said.

Fensome added that he was also glad to have the chance to make more of the public aware of the government data set highlighting the gender pay gap: “I was a bit shocked about how few people actually knew about this amazing data.”

What followed were “about two days of frantic coding, data analysis, bug fixing, sort of ad hoc testing and late nights,” Fensome said.

His code leads the bot to scan Twitter accounts for a variety of key words and hashtags linked to International Women’s Day before matching the accounts to data from the government database. Then it writes a quote retweet of the company’s post with information on its gender pay gap.

At 6 a.m. on last year’s International Women’s Day, the couple launched the bot on Fensome’s laptop. That meant they could only leave it running for the day, because Fensome needed to eventually resume using his computer, he said. But this year, it’s running on Amazon Web Services, he added. Given their focus on International Women’s Day, the couple plan to allow the account to continue to run through the end of the week. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

This year, Madeline Odent, a 30-year-old resident of Oxford, England, started a viral Twitter thread cataloguing companies that deleted tweets and locked their accounts after @PayGapApp quote-tweeted them. She said she doesn’t blame social media managers running the accounts for deleting the tweets, “just the bigwigs who tell them to avoid criticism/negative press at all costs,” she told The Washington Post in a Twitter message.

Lawson and Fensome agreed. They also said they would like to see the U.K. government collect more data on the gender pay gap — including on race, sexual orientation, disability and age — to paint a fuller picture of how pay gaps affect women differently based on those categories. Doing so would allow them to run a similar campaign for Black History Month, for example, Lawson said.

In the meantime, the couple plans to continue iterating on @PayGapApp until there’s no need for it.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need an International Women’s Day, because we’d have total gender parity,” Lawson said.

But for now, they’re already planning 2023’s round of corporate roastings.

“We have got some ideas for things to do next year,” Fensome said, “but we’ve got to keep some of it under wraps.”

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