Heathrow Airport is aiming to eradicate its gender pay gap

A progressive attitude to reward is just one part of an extensive diversity and inclusion programme at Britain’s busiest airport

Heathrow Airport is aiming to eradicate its gender pay gap

It almost goes without saying that Heathrow Airport is extremely large indeed. Covering nearly five square miles of west London real estate, it may have long ago lost its mantle of ‘world’s busiest airport’ but it remains the seventh largest globally, handling 84 million passengers each year. It is a small city even its most experienced employees struggle to consistently navigate. But for Paula Stannett, Heathrow’s chief people officer, the more significant indicator of the airport’s awesome scale is a lesser acknowledged fact: with 76,000 people at work there every day, it is the single biggest employment site in the UK.

More than 400 companies and 85 airlines call Heathrow their home, alongside the small army of directly employed security, operations and back- office personnel who make it function. “It’s a massive collaboration to put on this magic every day,” says Stannett, taking her seat in the boardroom that overlooks one of two runways spanning the length of the site.

It could eventually get yet more massive still, of course. While the political rumblings around a third runway have far from subsided, Heathrow has had to begin considering how to accommodate a colossal number of construction workers and a hugely enhanced number of ground staff should it expand. That scoping work goes on constantly, says Stannett. But if there’s one thing she does know for sure, it’s that diversity and inclusion are non-negotiable, no matter how the airport’s future plays out.

Heathrow has undertaken to reflect the demographic of its local community by 2025, which means inclusion is “at the heart of what we do”, says Stannett. It’s a particular challenge because not only is the surrounding area diverse in terms of ethnicity, but with only 3 per cent local unemployment it’s hard to rely on those in the direct vicinity to meet your targets. 

Many measures have been taken to improve diversity, adds Stannett, but one of the most effective is to create an overriding culture that values the business case for inclusion. “We really dial up on people understanding the Heathrow way. Everyone who comes into the organisation goes on a purpose and values programme that focuses on helping them understand their purpose and how that fits with the company’s.”

More practically, the business uses census data to understand what it should be aiming for among different categories of employee and tracks it against annual diversity survey results. It will actively recruit into areas where it is lacking talent, but that doesn’t mean positive discrimination. “We are firm believers in not positively discriminating, because that turns people off,” says Stannett. “They don’t want to be recruited because they are BAME, or female or because they have a disability. We want everyone – even white, middle-aged men – to reach their potential. But when we go out externally, we may focus on shifting the balance on who we bring in.”

A number of initiatives have helped in this area. Heathrow has parsed its recruitment advertising to eliminate bias, has charged a new talent acquisition team with proactively sourcing hard-to-find individuals and has a returners programme for anyone coming back to the workplace after a break. Diversity networks have been “hugely valuable” in providing ideas and contacts, as well as understanding the barriers some groups face in progressing in the organisation.

Heathrow has a commitment to hiring 10,000 apprentices, as well as a skills academy, which will help with its future pipeline. But Stannett says it’s equally important to ensure current staff are able to develop, which is why rolling out the ability to work flexibly has been key. “If people don’t have a certain amount of flexibility in their working lives, they will work elsewhere,” she says, while acknowledging this has been far easier for back-office staff than those in frontline roles. A new app is enabling shift swapping, an example of an increasingly digitised HR environment.

“Where we can give people broad and essential skills, they are future-proofed,” says Stannett. “We need to make sure people have careers for 10, 20, 30 years when jobs are changing. Technology and automation changes at an airport all the time and that scares people because potentially they feel there won’t be roles for them. To take that anxiety away, we do a lot to invest in lifelong learning.”

Active succession and talent planning helps, as does ensuring there is full mobility between departments. The next step, adds Stannett, will be to enable secondments and career breaks among the multitude of other business on the site, creating a true talent ecosystem. That will represent a considerable achievement for the chief people officer, now in her 21st year at an organisation where she began as an HR business partner.

But her eyes are on an even bigger prize: Heathrow reported a median gender pay gap in 2018 of 0.56 per cent, a considerable improvement on already impressive figures, but why, Stannett asks, should it not get down to absolute parity? The business is helped considerably by hiring an intake that has to be gender balanced by law across its customer-facing roles, particularly in security. But by deep-diving into the gender mix at different levels, the HR team can see women are less likely to reach senior leadership, which means they can target particular individuals with specific help, from agile working initiatives to confidence-boosting courses to enable them to reach their potential. 

“I’d like to eradicate the pay gap over a period of time; 50-50 would be perfect. Why shouldn’t it be? If you start compromising, it’s too easy. We had an initial target of 60-40 [gender mix] which we have achieved at certain levels, but after that we will go for 50-50. It’s important for us because where teams are mixed we see better performance. We still have more senior men in the organisation, even in our exec teams. But who’s to say in the future that won’t change?

“You have to understand the barriers to people taking on more senior roles. For us, that has been about flexibility, people’s caring duties and certain shift working patterns not fitting so well for some parts of our communities. Paternity and maternity pay is an important lever but all your other policies, right through to wellbeing and mental health, need to be in the right position so everyone can progress.”

Not everything in the garden is rosy. A strike in the summer of 2019 over a new pay deal was narrowly averted but the underlying issues have not gone away: since the introduction of new grades to try and bring reward structures into line with market pay, Heathrow effectively has a two-tier pay structure. It has made a new offer to unions and Stannett hopes for a resolution: “We’re back round the table. I can understand why our colleagues are not happy when they are working alongside people on different pay. It needs resolving and that is a fundamental engagement issue for us.”

It is, you suspect, an irksome bump in the road, but when you are working at such scale – and in an infrastructure that is almost unprecedented anywhere in the world – there are bound to be a few. What matters is whether you have a safe landing.