Let’s Talk About Pay Gaps

Ever since the UK Government announced compulsory gender pay gap reporting in 2015 for companies employing upwards of 250 people, pay gap and pay equality have been HR’s top trending topic. Broadening the debate to include disability and ethnicity pay has increased the volume on a subject that is highlighting conflict between fairness and what might be the bigger picture.

I am going to step back and look at why pay gap reporting isn’t as black and white as it seems. First, let’s take a moment to look at the progress report on gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps published this week by The Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The report shows that government-led strategies and employer interventions have the potential to reduce pay gaps identified for women, disabled people and ethnic minorities. Pay gap audits, national minimum wage, reasonable adjustments and flexible working rights all support the government’s pledge for equal pay, whilst employers have taken steps to remove unconscious bias in recruitment processes and better support mothers returning from maternity leave. Unconscious bias training is a significant recommendation from the report, as is “removing personal details from application forms”. The aim is to eliminate bias, which can exist consciously or unconsciously. This BBC article from earlier in the year is a sad but true example of race discrimination in the recruitment process. It does exist and from 2017, all UCAS applications will be name-blind to remove any unconscious bias.

Much of the discussion on the gender pay gap focusing on a negative assumption that pay gaps exist because of gender prejudice. Whilst it is evident that discrimination and unconscious bias do exist, are they the sole reason for pay gaps? Let’s take a look at some other reasons that may affect the gender pay gap:

  • Women are more likely than men to take a career break to raise children, slowing down career and therefore pay progression
  • Women are less likely to ask for a pay raise. Whilst many companies operate annual pay reviews, many pay increases are the result of individual requests or negotiations
  • Women are more likely than men to work in part-time positions. More companies are realising the value of part-time roles, but historically flexible opportunities have been few and far between at senior levels due to fear of impact on productivity
  • All of the above points (career breaks, less likely to negotiate, working part time) may slow down the career climb, impacting the number of women in senior positions

These are not the fault of the employer or the government. There is no fault here. They are facts. Where a woman has reached the same level in her a career as a man and the jobs have been evaluated as equal (remember an equal job title doesn’t neccesarily mean an equal role – a fact often ignored in the pay gap debate), then of course she should be paid the same. She also has the right to reach that point in her career for the same reasons as her male counterpart. As does he.

So if other reasons exist for pay gaps that are not discriminatory and are not necessarily negative, is it right to force a closure of the pay gap?

I believe in equality and fairness, both of which should be reflected in the pay of a job. I question whether the focus should be on the pay of women, disabled employees and ethnic minorities as it can not only promote positive discrimination, but encourage a lack of understanding of what an individual brings to a role beyond their protected characteristic. Instead, we should compare the pay of jobs. Equal pay for equal jobs. Equal opportunities for all. This is the objective of pay gap reporting, but by focusing on the gap, it forces employers to meet a statistic to close a gap. To address the grass root issue, we need to focus on embedding awareness of gender, disabilities and ethnicities (not to mention other characteristics, such as sexuality and religion) to remove prejudices.

It’s OK if there are not equal numbers of men, women, disabled, non-disabled, black, white and Asian employees on an organisation’s board. What’s not OK is if people in certain gender, ability or ethnicity groups do not have an equal opportunity to join the board. This starts with society, runs through the family, community and every employer and organisation. Once we encourage, not limit, we can stop identifying people as minority groups and start celebrating individuality.

Find out more:

BLOG Flexible Working: what’s the big deal?

Access to Work Factsheet for Employers

How to Become a Disability Confident Employer

Business in the Community: Race at Work

ACAS Gender Pay Gap Reporting

Fawcett Society Gender Pay Gap Series



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