Over the coming weeks, thousands of organisations will be reporting their gender pay gaps. For most, it will be a nervous time – and rightly so. In insurance and financial planning, the figures are significant (45 per cent in favour of men, on average, according to some estimates) and that will lead to some searching, and long overdue, questions.
But any number is just a number. Rather than fixate on it, we should be thinking about the reasons behind it – beyond the obvious lack of senior women in many sectors. The reasons for this underrepresentation are more interesting and varied than much of the commentary has acknowledged.
They include a lack of fairness in reward and performance management (which often unfairly disadvantages women) as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge and confront biases, and a lack of confidence and capability among some in the ‘marzipan layer’ of middle managers to support and promote female careers.
At a local level, this plays out in work allocation, and it’s here that targeted HR intervention could have a particularly profound impact. Across too many sectors, there is a tendency to give the most interesting tasks and the most stretching objectives to men by default.
This creates a notion of ‘male jobs’ and ‘female jobs’, which has no place in a modern workplace. All of us have been guilty of thinking: ‘She’s a woman with a family – she won’t want to go the extra mile.’ Such thinking is a natural manifestation of our biases, but it prevents women from progressing and potentially restricts them to back office positions.
Women sometimes opt out of roles or ditch entire careers when they see opportunities pass them by. How much more empowering it would be to actively design jobs that help narrow the gender pay gap; for example, by promoting flexible working including job shares, home working, condensed working and term-time hours to both men and women at all levels, or encouraging returnships that genuinely support women hoping to return to the workplace after a career break.
Do we make assumptions about what type of work women are able to do? Are we guilty of offering the higher status, fee-earning work to men and the back office work to women? We need to challenge these assumptions and ensure we provide men and women with an equal chance to deliver on interesting and challenging work.
The alternative is to become increasingly out of step as we all fight for talent and seek to improve business performance during these turbulent times. The dialogue around diversity and inclusion has real momentum, and gender pay gap reporting will create a platform for organisations to address some of these traditional ways of shaping a role, and to call out both the lack of opportunities for women and the lack of consideration for the impact of diversity on business performance.
We have a unique opportunity to build on this momentum, and to extend the thinking already taking place on gender to cover equally important facets of diversity, such as ethnicity, sexual identity, age, and disability. Which is why I hope the months ahead will be about more than ‘naming and shaming’ companies whose numbers may suggest they are falling short, and will be the start of a new way of doing business, where firms become genuinely relevant to the communities they serve.
Tali Shlomo is people engagement director at the Chartered Insurance Institute