What to do with the gender pay gap

Charlotte Ling, Head of Change, Celesio UK

The deadline scramble has passed, the results are (mostly) in, and the result is as plenty suspected: 8 in 10 UK companies pay men more than women, and there is significant industrial bias in median pay gap in Construction and Finance & Insurance.

Most companies dispute that their pay gap is driven by bias, and instead point to under-representation in senior roles, attributable to expert skills polarisation (pilots at Ryanair are paid more than female cabin staff) or niche product understanding (Harvey Nichols average pay is nearly 10% higher for women).

Whilst this year’s Gender Pay Gap review has done a fantastic job of sparking a national debate on a topic that needs exposure, most businesses have yet to produce a meaningful action plan to remedy the differential. And whilst there are already examples of businesses hurriedly back-paying underpaid female staff to “level” their remuneration packages with their male colleagues, notoriously including Left Bank Pictures, all this does is solve a historical problem without any real root cause analysis to avoid the situation recurring: the implication that this is only about money massively misses the point.

Thankfully the UK Government has recognised this and just this week announced an in-depth analysis of the root causes behind the 23% gender pay gap across the NHS. Whilst it is admirable to throw significant time and funding behind this level of due diligence, one wonders how far they will get to something meaningful, and actionable, on an enterprise scale.

If there is one thing I have taken from this report, it’s that every industry, every employer, down to every employee, potentially has an issue which is personal to them. Under-representation of an individual could be down to their lack of confidence in networking, the absence of ambition, or it could be attributable to a lack of sponsorship. As soon as we homogenise and roll the data up, we lose sight of these individual factors.

As the Office for National Statistics states:

‘63.9% of the gap cannot be explained, and suggests that the analysis would benefit from information on family structures, education and career breaks; without these the unexplained element is over-stated...’

As leaders of UK businesses, we all now have a responsibility now to make this data meaningful for members of our teams and their situations, be exemplary in how we take action for ourselves, and encourage others towards taking action, if they choose to. At a macro scale, there is plenty of meaningful action which can be taken in the meantime:

Review maternity/paternity policies and attitudes.
In 2015 the UK introduced Shared Parental Leave (SPL), permitting both partners (if eligible) to split their maternity or adoption pay/allowance between them as they wished. A great step forwards on the surface, however this is a split of maternity pay, so would only be financially feasible for the limited number of couples where the mother earns enough to keep the whole family afloat.

Following the introduction of SPL, the UK government commissioned a survey to gauge cultural reaction to the new policy, which showed 32% of men feared a break to look after their children would damage their career. Unsurprisingly, in 2017 only 1% of families opted to use SPL, which has prompted calls for government to be more flexible on childcare funding.

Employers can do more here to be sympathetic, spread awareness, and advocate and legitimise uptake. “Until we have more high-profile role models, particularly men, helping to change out-dated attitudes on shared parental leave, we will struggle to get over the stigma,” says Brenda Trenowden, Global Chair of the 30% Club.

Some Financial Services are already trail-blazing with equal and well-paid parenting leave which doesn’t require sharing, including Aviva and Jupiter – popularity remains to be seen, as well as cross-sector uptake.

Make recruitment go further, by hiring for roles rather than jobs.
One hardly ever sees a job specification go by which does not call for some kind of industry knowledge, with little justification for why it is there. When we recruit from a limited pool, we also recruit from the same pool of ingrained cultures and behaviours. In the famous words of Dr Richard Bandler, co-founder of NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming), ‘yogurt knows yogurt’: the stability of the ‘sympathetic vibration’ in a team may be more comfortable for some hiring managers than the potential to disrupt and do something different, and that may be holding them back.

Some employers still see their workforce as individuals in jobs, with employees proudly introducing themselves with their tenure as a marker of gravitas. More modern businesses see their workforce as a more fluid set of talent and capability, constantly fulfilling a required set of roles. The role itself may be temporary, which should never concern the individual that fulfils it – their skills and capabilities should be such that they can move into another role as required.

A true understanding of business architecture (the processes, roles and responsibilities, and measures of performance which make up your entire business) will underpin a shift from old to new behaviours, and will enable the recruitment of flexible all-stars. However, with this move will come a responsibility to coach your new recruits and foster resilience – throwing a luxury fashion brand manager into a construction company PR office with little regard for their personal welfare may breed disconten

Remain conscious of the unconscious.
No matter how much you may train or mentor your business leaders on the gender gap, we are failing to outsmart the unconscious. Despite best intentions, data-driven recruitment algorithms have been shown to detect and reproduce the patterns of their developers’ biases over time, and require continual monitoring and tweaking as a result.

The power of the unconscious is of course prevalent across the workforce as well as leadership, and contributes to widening representational gaps. There is a proven unconscious tendency in women to not apply for a role where they do not meet all the application criteria (as opposed to men, who will more often take a shot). 

Some simple changes to hiring process can help to alleviate unconscious bias: Vodafone have rolled out “blinding” gender and names from all applicant CVs, as well as ensuring job specifications are gender-neutral. However, this blind-screening will only take you so far as interview stage.

Whilst there are some technologies that can enable a blind interview, most businesses thrive on having people who can build relationships quickly – and a face-to-face interview is the truest test of that skillset. Therefore, there is an absolute need for recruitment processes to capture and report on diversity metrics at every stage of the pipeline, and to use these to fine-tune approach moving forwards.

Above all, respect freedom of choice.
This year, a survey of half a million girls across the world exposed the STEM Gender Equality Paradox: more gender-equal societies have fewer women taking STEM degrees, due in part to the confidence and ability of these women to “pursue their calling and unlock their personal potential, building their future around their genuine interests and personal strengths.” The study went on to summarise: “When societies’ social pressures are less tyrannical, individual tendencies can be expressed more freely.”

At its core, feminism is about having an equal freedom of choice. Provided every business ensures policies are fair and equal, information and support are readily available, and confidence to make and own decisions is fostered in each individual, then everyone’s choices must be respected at all costs.

We may never solve the gender pay gap, we may never have 50:50 representation in all skillsets and industries, but provided it is a balanced choice, then there’s nothing left to solve.