Tackling the gender pay gap

Friends Life has won a major award for its transparency over the gender pay gap. Jonathan Wright, its Organisational Development Director, talks to Workingmums.co.uk about how transparency is a core business initiative.

How do we get to gender pay parity if women often don't know that a man in a similar job is getting paid significantly more than them or that certain jobs which are traditionally more likely to be done by women tend to be on a lower pay scale?

Progressive companies like Friends Life believe that the best way to narrow the gender pay gap is to be open about what people are paid. The idea behind gender pay audits is that ‘what gets publicly reported, gets managed even better’ and that transparency provides an impetus for change.

Friends Life recently won the Opportunity Now Excellence in Practice Award for Transparency for being one of a small band of organisations which are taking significant first steps to voluntarily publish gender metrics in the public domain.

The life assurance company believes that transparency will go some way towards rebuilding trust in business and especially in financial services.

Jonathan Wright, the company’s Organisational Development Director, says the motivation to publish gender pay information came initially from the organisation’s core business purpose. The initiative comes under its Workwell leadership team. “We are a company which is very customer centric. Trust is vital in financial services and that has been fairly eroded over the years. We think being transparent will enhance our reputation in the market,” he says. “And we also wanted to attract and retain women. Women are half the population. If we are closing the door on talented women we are losing out. We believe that what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done. If we don’t publish the data we will never get started on addressing the issues.”

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Senior management

Gender pay metrics are only one metric that the organisation publishes. Its statistics show that there is a gap, mainly at the lower levels, which is interesting, given that other data, for instance, from the Chartered Management Institute, shows that women tend to start at the same pay level or above as men and that the gap widens as their career progresses.

Its 2012 figures show Friends life has just over 3,700 employees, of which over 97% work full time. Forty-nine per cent are female and it has an 80% rate of return from maternity leave. Less than a third of managers are women. This figure increased by 0.5% between 2011 and 2012.  On average women below management level are paid 7.6% more than men; those at management level are paid just under 5% less than men, but women at executive level are paid over 7% more than men, possibly skewed by a small number of highly paid women at the top.

While business reasons were initially the main reason for the transparency policy, it has evolved in recent months. Last year the company started looking more closely at internal diversity issues and held open discussions and focus groups with 300 members of staff to find out what was important to them with regard to diversity. “It was good to have time to reflect on this. A number of lightbulbs went on during the process and people started challenging themselves about their ideas on things. We believe having open conversations like these help us move forward,” says Wright. Focus group participants felt there was no obvious gender bias, but they felt the company could do more to promote women to more senior roles. Wright says their external hires are 50/50 male:female up to mid management level and then drop off, as happens in many organisations. “Our focus is to look at why that is,” he says. For that reason, it is looking at other data on employee wellbeing through a gender lens.

It has set up a mentoring programme for women and a senior female executive leads a series of networking dinners and lunches where tips and challenges are shared. This year the company is piloting workshops that aim to support women coming back from maternity leave, looking at issues such as moving “from survival to sustainability”. “The aim is to get over that it is ok when you first come back to take some time to get yourself sorted and to give women the space to talk about the challenges of managing their career ambitions and their home life and to share common issues,” says Wright. The pilot may be extended to men next year. “We don’t want to exclude men as increasingly they are taking shared responsibility for childcare,” he adds.

Friends Life also shares success stories through its internal communications channels. It also has plans to join forces with the Prince’s Trust to get managers, including strong female role models, to go into schools and talk about their jobs.

The company is also putting its managers through a diversity and unconscious bias training programme. “The aim is to shift people’s mindset on diversity,” says Wright, “so they can see diversity as a business benefit. Our customers are very diverse and we need to be able to relate to them.”

Wright admits that being transparent about issues like gender pay parity can be quite scary, particularly when so few other organisations have taken the plunge, but he hopes Friends Life’s example encourages others to follow suit. “We want to lead the way and our leadership is fully behind this. Diversity is a boardroom issue for us,” says Wright.

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