There’s less than a month to go until the deadline for the first gender pay audits. The likelihood is that after April the spotlight is going to remain firmly on gender – and other forms of – diversity. The second year of the audits will throw up comparisons as policymakers and the media focus on who has made progress and how.
Labour has just announced plans to tighten up the regulations to require all larger employers to prove they are making progress on gender equality or face further auditing and fines. It is unclear what this might involve as yet and how progress might be measured, but the French government is debating a proposal to give French companies a period of three years to address any unjustifiable gender pay gap, such as unequal pay, or face a fine of up to 1% of their wage bill. This follows on from similar legislation in Iceland.
So the focus now more than ever will be on what employers can do to tackle the gender pay gap and what works in particular contexts, given that the gender pay gap is highly complex and is all to often confused with unequal pay. Unequal pay is being paid less for doing work of equal value. It can overlap with the gender pay gap, but those audits which have been published show that one of the main contributors to the gender pay gap is the lack of women in senior roles.
Some employers have been pushing away at the gender diversity issue for years, trialling policies aimed at tackling career progression for women such as making their work culture more flexible, introducing unconscious bias training for managers, launching sponsorship initiatives aimed at helping women progress, promoting Shared Parental Leave and advertising more senior roles that can be done on a part-time basis.
Each sector has its own individual issues. In some, problems with female recruitment may involve more outreach work with schools; with others it may involve tackling a long hours, desk-bound culture or lack of support for those who take parental leave or extended breaks. Workingmums.co.uk has been running its Top Employer Awards for the last nine years to highlight best practice across the board, from micro to large employers across all sectors. Unlike some other Awards it is free to enter and is not just about having the right policies in place, but about what works and about impact – something the judges scrutinise in depth. The results, published in our Best Practice Reports, are fascinating and show how thinking is evolving in this complex and challenging area.
There is now, for instance, a big focus on line managers who play a crucial role in setting workplace culture and in encouraging people up the ladder, but who themselves are under a huge amount of pressure. After much initial enthusiasm for mentoring schemes, there has been more focus of late on sponsors who actively advocate for women and help to develop potential.
Agile working is becoming more of the norm, although there is still a lot of work to do to promote it from recruitment onwards so flexible workers don’t get stuck in a career rut and can move on – and up. Practices that support dads and give parents greater choice over caring for children in their first years have also been highlighted since the introduction of Shared Parental Leave as part of a recognition that greater workplace equality begins with greater equality at home. Interest in returner initiatives – how to get those who have taken an extended career break back into work – has also been building and best practice in this area is still evolving. Other big focuses are carers, mental well being and job redesign, ensuring that flexible jobs are not just about shoehorning more work into fewer hours.
What is clear is that gender diversity is a challenging area for employers, particularly larger employers with established work cultures, and that changing it requires constant vigilance and questioning of ingrained practices and social norms.
*Mandy Garner is editor of Workingmums.co.uk.