I'll tell you something: Tackling the gender pay gap means confronting the motherhood penalty

Unconscious bias towards women – particularly those who are mothers – is still rife in organisations

Earlier this year, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) published guidance for companies about how to tackle the gender pay gap. One of the most striking things about the guide was the disconnect between what actually works and what most firms are doing.    

As part of a recent research project for the Association of British Insurers (ABI), my colleagues and I at Public First analysed the remedial gender pay gap activity of the FTSE 100. Unconscious bias training was the most popular intervention, cited by more than a quarter of companies. Yet bias training fails to make the GEO’s effective actions list, and our own review of the academic research found that it did little to promote equality.   

The literature shows the biggest reason for both the seniority gap (in other words, for women not progressing to senior roles at the same rate as men) and for the gender pay gap isn’t women being treated differently. These gaps have much more to do with the working patterns associated with motherhood. When a woman has children, she is much more likely to take on most of the childcare responsibilities and therefore need to work more flexibly. 

But once a woman is working reduced hours, she is less likely to progress in terms of wages or promotion: she gets stuck. According to one international study, 80 per cent of the pay gap is explained by motherhood. This is predominantly because other causes of the gap have been (mostly) dealt with in the last few decades. So companies’ gender equality efforts should focus on things like taking flexible hours seriously, supporting job shares and making part-time senior roles available.

Is bias against female employees a thing of the past? Not quite. While motherhood-related work patterns are overwhelmingly the biggest cause of gender gaps, there is still some evidence of unconscious bias against women in general and against mothers in particular. For example, some studies have found that mothers are seen as less competent and committed than non-mothers (conversely, fathers are perceived as more competent and committed than non-fathers). What’s more, it is very hard for mothers to overcome this perception without being seen as less ‘warm’ and ‘likeable’.  

If unconscious bias is still a factor in gender gaps, it’s unsurprising that companies reach for bias training to tackle the problem – teaching them about it makes sense. The problem is that overcoming our biases, however good our intentions, is difficult. This is true in all areas where cognitive bias comes into play. 

Companies spend a lot of money on unconscious bias training, but the evidence for its success is low. Academics at Princeton and Yale reviewed around 1,000 studies on bias training and found a “dearth of evidence” on whether it worked. A study of more than 800 mid-to-large US companies over three decades found the levels of diversity training provided had no direct correlation to the diversity of the workforce. 

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the bias problem. It just means that we need to be smarter and more evidence-led in tackling it. There are a range of more effective ways to eliminate unconscious bias. For example, structuring interviews so that you ask exactly the same questions of all candidates – in the same order and format – has been shown to reduce unconscious bias in hiring and promotion. Grading candidates using standardised criteria also helps. The key is to reduce subjective judgements when it comes to deciding who should be hired, who should be promoted and what their pay will be.

In a world where a company’s gender-gap statistics are of real interest to policy- makers, the media and the public, there is nowhere to hide. Saying how many staff took a bias course and reporting on their satisfaction with the training means nothing if the gap itself isn’t closing. 

It’s time to look at all the evidence for what works, put in place concrete metrics to track success and be bold about tackling the big problems. So much hard work has already gone into closing the gender pay gap. If we work smarter, we can get there. 

Rachel Wolf is a founding partner at Public First and former policy advisor on gender and equality to Theresa May