Closing the gender pay gap: next steps and key challenges

gender pay gap

Need to know:

  • Diversity of gender, background, experience and opinion is key to business success, and closing the gender pay gap would have significant economic benefits for the UK.
  • Coaching, mentoring and sponsorship of women is an important way of ensuring female employees do not get stuck in the talent pipeline.
  • Flexible working, shared parental leave and return-to-work programmes can all be part of an effective approach, if combined with communication and cultural change.
  • There are some short-term measures and quick fixes, but real change will come as the result of extended, multi-faceted strategies.

Diversity of experience and opinion is an important driver for success within a business. In addition, The power of parity: advancing women’s equality in the United Kingdom, published by McKinsey Global Institute in September 2016, notes that bridging the UK gender pay gap has the potential to create an additional £150 billion on top of business-as-usual GDP forecasts for 2025.

So, what can employers do, now that the statistics have been published and all eyes are on them?

Get the discussion right first

Some of those organisations being met with acrimony post-reporting can actually point to legitimate causes outside of their direct influence, such as a lack of female graduates in their sector.

It might be misleading, then, to condemn them at the expense of more important issues, suggests Sheila Wild, writer and independent equality consultant at APPP Consulting. “The more conversations we can open up with as many of these issues as we possibly can, the easier it’s going to be to start to solve the problem. The headline figures themselves don’t get us to the right kinds of conversations.”

Simonetta Longhi, associate professor at the University of Reading, suggests that the occupational distribution of women should be reported alongside gender pay gap statistics.

Female role models and the talent pipeline

Patrick Woodman, head of research and advocacy at the Chartered Management Institute, says: “Getting diverse selection panels is always a great start. [Employers then] need to look at mentoring and sponsorship as a really powerful way of developing [employees] into senior roles. Put in place formal mentoring and sponsorship programmes that get senior leaders to champion high-potential women.”

However, until more women are in leadership, those aiming to get into senior positions are going to lack female role models and mentors within their own organisations.

Employers might therefore look to external networks and leadership programmes. This, combined with support from within the organisation itself, will encourage women to see themselves in leadership roles, and to view their employer as one that will help make those ambitions a reality.

Averil Leimon, director at leadership consultancy and executive coaching firm White Water Group, says: “External networks allow women to be exposed to and learn from other women, to find out how they really did it, and to know that they aren’t perfect. Leadership coaching is very effective. It helps women know themselves and play to their strengths.”

Flexible working, parental leave and other helpful benefits

In its August 2017 report, Fair opportunities for all: a strategy to reduce pay gaps in Britain, The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended that flexible working be available from day one and throughout the ranks of an organisation.

By also offering enhanced shared parental leave, employers can support more men in taking time off, thereby equalising the care burden. This also allows for a healthier work-life balance among male employees and levels the playing field for career progression.

Megan Jarvie, head of policy at the Family and Childcare Trust, adds: “Flexible working is part of the solution but probably not the panacea for all [organisations]. You need to have a good childcare system that is affordable and easy to access.”

Return-to-work programmes might be another facet of an organisation’s approach, explains Julianne Miles, managing director at consultancy, coaching and network organisation Women Returners.

“You’re shifting the gender balance at more senior levels, where the challenges are,” Miles adds. “There’s a real economic benefit, and if we can get experienced professionals who are mainly women coming back in through returner programmes at the right level, that benefits the whole gender pay gap as well.”

Short-term and quick fix solutions

It is worth noting that some approaches may have negative effects at first. “Hiring lots of women into entry-level roles, so that in five to 15 years you’ve got a more balanced organisation, may well be the right thing to do,” says Woodman. “But the by-product is going to be a short-term worsening of the gender pay gap data. The numbers are just numbers, and they’ll only really make sense if the [organisation] is going to be transparent and talk about what it is actually doing.”

Longhi notes that another short-term fix might be to simply pay existing senior women more, but that patches such as these are likely to fall apart quickly: “If those women then leave, then [organisations] move from no gap to a huge gap. It’s kind of hiding the problem, and [employers] need to dig deeper.”

Unconscious bias, communication and transparency

Unconscious bias training is an easy way to be seen to make changes in the short term, but it is important to understand the limitations. “[Organisations] can use that as an excuse and put people on training and think it will sort itself,” notes Wild. “An afternoon on unconscious bias that someone probably doesn’t want to go to is not going to solve the problem.”

Employers should examine the motivations behind potentially biased decisions, dissect all stages of the career pipeline, and speak to female employees, to discover where problem points are within the organisation.

Line managers should also work to combat all kinds of discriminatory behaviour, in order to tackle broader systemic issues. “Any manager has a role to play in making sure that how their team works is fair,” Woodman explains. “Making sure that men don’t talk over women, that people aren’t taking credit for women’s work unduly, that people aren’t getting heckled if they’re leaving early for parental care commitments.”

It is important to also tackle the stigma surrounding male up-take of certain benefits. “Just putting in flexible working isn’t enough,” states Wild. “At its worst, more flexible working will ensure that every single woman in the place works part time and none of the men do.”

An attitude change towards paternity leave and flexible working among men, particularly in the senior ranks, is more likely to be generational than short-term. Nevertheless, employers can foster change by facilitating open discussion and providing access to important information.

“You trust someone who’s walked the walk themselves and can share their own experience,” states Jarvie. “One of the things we’re starting is having parent champions at work, providing peer to peer information and advice.”

Stay the course for meaningful change

True cultural change is naturally a daunting prospect, and many employers might baulk at the task, in favour of implementing short-term, easily publicised fixes.

“If [employers] are just giving lip service, and don’t credit all the research that shows the benefits of greater gender diversity to business and profits, then change is superficial and financially wasteful,” warns Leimon. “Real change has to be systemic, multi-factor, and multi-year. It has to be a change to the culture.”

“The gender pay gap is never just about pay,” agrees Woodman. “It is absolutely intertwined with issues regarding the progression of women and the failure of organisations to support them. It’s a big issue and the solutions are not small things, but it means that the benefits are enormous as well.”