How to judge whether employers are making progress on gender pay and flex issues

gender pay


The gender pay gap audits have thrown a spotlight on what employers are doing to address the web of issues that lead to women being generally paid less than men.

It is not enough to report a gender pay gap, even if it is not a huge chasm. Employers have been advised that having a detailed action plan is an important way of showing they actually want to address it.

A recent report by the IPPR think tank highlighted that the gender pay gap figures can often be misleading, with some firms having a large gender pay gap, often because they are in traditionally male-dominated sectors, although they are working hard to promote gender equality while others with a small gap pay women (and men) poorly. It points out that some measures to promote gender equality may increase the pay gap in the short-term – for example, the recruitment of more female graduate trainees.

It states: “We should therefore be cautious in attributing too much importance to the pay gap data in isolation. We would encourage more firms to publish short, accessible narrative reports alongside their pay gap results in future.”

We’ve seen what has happened with women on boards and how employers have often gone for quick wins by boosting the number of non-executive directors. It’s a short term fix, but when numbers are low the figures can be volatile. Just as adding one woman to the board can look like a big increase percentage wise, the same applies in reverse – losing one woman for whatever reason can make a company’s figures look significantly worse.

So figures alone are not a great predictor of progress or lack of progress when it comes to entrenched social issues. However, while narrative reports can promise a lot and say all the right things, a detailed analysis is required to see whether real, sustained effort is being made. Several organisations have set up benchmarking exercises to compare employers’ policies when it comes to family support and flexible working. These can be helpful, but policies and practice can often be two different things.

Employers can have great flexible working policies in place, but if those working in the organisation, particularly those in senior positions, are not openly working flexibly it is unlikely that many will take them up.

It is widely recognised among progressive employers that policies are not enough. What is needed is a supportive, flexible culture. So how do you judge whether an employer has this or is, at the very least, working towards it?

It comes down to a detailed questioning of practice, backed up by authentic case studies which themselves are also subject to scrutiny and solid data.

Top Employer Awards’s Top Employer Award judges have spent years scrutinising employer information in this area. They know what is involved and, coming from different perspectives and with different expertise, they tease out what they think makes a difference.

They include’s founder, Gillian Nissim, who has over 11 years’ experience running a virtual business as well as advocating for family friendly and flexible practice, and Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director and Head of Coaching and Consultancy at My Family Care, who has years of expertise in supporting parents.

For Dave Dunbar, Head of Digital Workspaces at the Department for Work and Pensions, policies are important, but as a jumping off point. He says: “To me, a great employer demonstrates a mixture of agility, clarity, fairness, and scale in their flexible or family-centric approach. Having the right policies is a good start. They set out clear options and choices, giving transparency and providing the framework for consistency. The right policies give clear decision paths which in turn support growth, evolution and scaling. That is only the start of the story though. We are not talking about pages hidden in drawers or deposited on the intranet. A policy that isn’t applied is just an academic exercise. The policies need to be applied so often, in fact, that they become part of the corporate heartbeat. That’s the only way that the benefits can be realised and we need to see evidence of that. Finally, we have things like engagement and innovation. I would like to see how new ideas and approaches  are incubated, how people right across the organisation are involved, included, encouraged and enriched. Part of that, of course, is understanding how the organisation itself, and its stakeholders, benefit too.”

Andy Lake, editor of, has been advising organisations on smart working for many years. He agrees that a focus on the benefits of flexibility is crucial. He says: “When looking at entries I’m particularly interested in organisations that are actively delivering change and can point to practical measures that have made a difference. And, with the line of work that I’m in, I like to see examples where the organisation is achieving business benefits through flexibility, as well as benefits for the individual, where a smart kind of flexibility is part of the everyday normal, rather than the exception.”

For Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield University, support is also vital. She says: “Whilst it is great to see new and innovative policies that employers are developing, the real test is whether these policies have any impact on practice and how far reaching this is.  Therefore when judging a submission, it is important for us to look for evidence that support has also been put in place to facilitate the implementation of the policies. So, for example, if a policy represents a significant departure from existing practice, there may be a need to provide managers with support on how best to put it into practice and/or a need to challenge existing perceptions about how work is done.  Well-designed policies which are effectively implemented can genuinely transform the ways in which work is carried out in organisations.”

Scrutinising policies and practices in depth is not a perfect system – nothing ever is – and it is time-consuming, but if one thing is certain it is that there are no quick fixes to any of this. Progress forwards needs to be relentless.

*If you are a small or large organisation with stand-out policies and practice and want to apply for Top Employer Awards, entry is free. Click here for more information. The closing date for entries is 20th July. 

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