The gender pay gap is certainly stirring up debate. The next year will be important. There are two dangers: one that not much progress will be made [because this is not an issue that will be solved instantaneously] and that those who prefer the status quo with few women in senior roles will say that this proves that all the talk about unconscious bias, mentoring, etc, is pointless. Women just prefer to park their career after childbirth, etc, etc. The other is from the progressive side – that people will just get annoyed at the lack of progress and will use it as a stick to beat employers, including certain corporates who may well be doing quite a lot to address the underlying problems. While the stick approach may be useful with employers who are doing nothing or merely paying lip service to the issue, it could rebound.
What is needed instead is an open discussion about what works, backed up by proper evidence. There is a lot of talk about mentoring programmes, for instance, but research shows these are not as effective as some may think and that sponsorship, where senior leaders actively advocate for those lower down the chain, may have a bigger impact. Returner programmes are also very on trend and they are great, but most are very small. They need to be scaled up.
The gender pay gap is a complex problem and needs to be tackled on a variety of fronts from school upwards. It embraces everything from social attitudes around sharing childcare, including very conflicting pressures on both girls and boys, to management training to advertising flexible jobs at all levels.
I was interested in a survey of graduates the other day which I think shows some of the problems. It was done by graduate app Debut. It’s not by any means a scientific study, but the results were nonetheless interesting. It showed 33% of female graduates said they wouldn’t apply to companies with high gender pay gaps and that, while 51% of males and 59% of females may still apply, doing so would make them feel uncomfortable. Some 84% of female graduates surveyed believed companies with large gender pay gaps lacked integrity and they think the number one reason for the pay gap is that the offending companies are “outdated and sluggish”. So more fuel for employers to tackle the gender pay gap if they want to attract the best talent, both male and female and to embrace working life in the 21st century. But what if it leads to women avoiding the very male-dominated industries where they are most needed and what if the segregation between sectors become more pronounced as a result?
The frustration is understandable, but that frustration needs to be fed into positive ways of creating change that recognise the challenges in particular sectors and support change. There is no quick fix. It’s a hard, sustained slog and people need to be prepared to dig in, to constantly review any progress made and to keep pushing the rock up the hill.
Naming and shaming only gets people so far and can lead people to game the system when reputation is at stake. Take women on boards, for instance. Targets were set. Figures increased, but most of the women added were non-executive directors rather than women who had come through the system so changing numbers was not, in most cases, indicative of greater gender balance within the company. Moreover, when numbers are low, if just one woman leaves the statistics can change significantly, leading to headlines about things going backwards rather than to a focus on the kind of long term, sustainable change we need.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.