Closing the gender pay gap: whose role is it anyway?

By Katy Adalar, communications manager at the CIPD.

An equal world is an enabled world. That’s the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (next Sunday8 March) – a day to celebrate women’s achievements and promote gender equality. 

Women’s role in business and society is certainly more valued today than it was in 1911, when we celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time. But the race is still on for gender equality in our board rooms, governments, media coverage, workplaces and more.  

In just over four weeks’ time, every employer in the UK with more than 250 employees will have published their gender pay gap data for the third year (if you haven’t done yours yet, check out our six simple steps to gender pay gap reporting). The data will no doubt tell a tale of two halves: I’m optimistic we’ll see some good news stories about employers taking their responsibility for closing the gap seriously; but there’ll almost certainly be concerns that overall progress is still too slow.  

The persistent gender pay gap in the UK (and most parts of the world), is a stark reminder that the gender equal workplace remains out of reach. And it doesn’t just tell us that women earn less than men (on average), it tells us that businesses – and even whole industries and sectors – are missing out on female talent. Women are better qualified than ever before, yet over her careerthe average woman can expect to earn almost a quarter of a million pounds less than the average manAnd, according to PWCeighty-five per cent of female millennials surveyed said an employer’s policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion was important when deciding whether or not to work for an employer. But their expectations are not always met: 71% feel that while organisations talk about diversity, opportunities are not really equal for all. 

So, what can we do about it? And whose responsibility is it anyway?  

The #eachforequal theme for International Women’s Day is based on the notion that individual actions all have an impact, and collectively we can make change happen. When it comes to closing the gender pay gap and creating gender-equal workplaces, there is no silver bullet; it’ll take the sustained and collective actions of individuals, managers, people professionalsemployers and entire industriesSo where do we start?  

Five key causes of the gender pay gap 

To answer the question ‘where do we start?’, we must first understand what causes the gender pay gap. It will vary from organisation to organisation but, according to the CIPD’s gender pay gap reporting guide, the overall gap comes down to a combination of five factors: 

  1. Part-time working: 73% of part-time workers are women, and 41% of women work part-time compared with 12% of men. So, when you consider that hourly rates of pay for part-time work tend to be lower than full-time work; it’s easy to see how this can contribute to the gender pay gap.  
  2. Unpaid caring responsibilitieswomen are still more likely than men to care for children or other relatives. This perpetuates women’s propensity to work part-time or take career breaks that can impact their earning potential.  
  3. Occupational segregation: Men still dominate some types of highly-paid jobs, such as IT, engineering and senior management across sectors, while women are concentrated in lower-paid occupations such as caring, catering and cleaning – because these jobs involve tasks that were traditionally carried out at home, they are often considered to be low-skilled and therefore low-paid. Efforts to attract more women into higher-paid jobs could widen the gender pay gap in the short-term as more women take on entry-level roles in those occupations, with a view to progressing to higher-paid roles in the longer term.     
  4. Barriers to career progression: people who work part-time or take career breaks (often women) are sometimes perceived to accumulate fewer skills and less experience than those who work full-time without a break. As a result, their career and pay progression may suffer.  
  5. Pay discrimination: although the gender pay gap is not the same as pay discrimination according to the Equal Pay Act (where a man is illegally paid more than a woman for the same or similar work, without any objective justification), the high (albeit falling) prevalence of equal pay claims in the UK suggests that this could still be a contributing factor. 

What role can HR teams play?  

Not only do HR teams hold the workforce data that will help organisations identify what’s causing their pay gap, but there are also three key areas of people practice that directly impact your organisation’s gender pay gap. Reward is perhaps the most obvious one but just (if not more) important are recruitment and flexible working practices – both of which have a huge bearing on whether or not women join an organisation or industry, and their likelihood of progressing to senior roles within those organisations or industries 

 1) Recruitment and progression 

Many gender pay gaps arise because of the differences in the types of roles men and women are recruited to do, and the rates at which they progress in those roles. 

It’s therefore worth reviewing recruitment and progression in your organisation to see what might be contributing to your gender pay gap 

  • Do you know how many men and women apply to work in different functions or roles within your organisation? What proportion of men and women are successful? 
  • Do men and women progress through your organisation at similar rates? If not, why could this be? For example, are women missing out on important training and development opportunities because of their part-time hours?  
  • What proportion of men and women leavyour organisation, and at what point in their careerAre there any observable trends? What insights can you gather from exit interviews? For example, are women leaving mid-career due to a lack of flexible working options in senior roles? Or are there concerns about how inclusive the organisation is? 
  • What impact do your recruitment channels have on gender diversity? An over-reliance on word-of-mouth recruitment could reinforce any existing patterns, as illustrated with the industrial flooring manufacturer described on page 40 of our guide 

 2) Flexible working and family leave 

Because women are still more likely than men to take on unpaid caring responsibilities, a lack of flexible working can prevent women from applying for certain roles or moving up the career ladder. Family leave and flexible working arrangements should not be focused on getting more women into more part-time roles, but on giving parents more choice over how they split caring responsibilities and making flexible working genuinely available for all, at all levels. 

 To understand your gender pay gap, review your flexible working policies and uptake: 

  • Who’s requesting flexible working in your organisation, and which requests are granted? Do the numbers differ between gender, business unit, functional area or seniority? Does everyone in your organisation who wants to work flexibly feel able to request it? Even if men aren’t requesting to work more flexibly, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to. 
  • Are flexible workers in your organisation progressing? If not, you could be missing out on talented people.   
  • Do you encourage and support parents to take shared parental leave? Giving people greater choice over how they share caring responsibilities can help address the eldercare and motherhood penalties many women face.   
  • What proportion of women return to work at your organisation after maternity or shared parental leave? Of those who leave, what are their reasons? For example, is it due to childcare costs or a lack of flexible working?  
  • How long do women typically stay after returning from maternity or shared parental leave? Do you encourage and support returners to develop their career? 

 3) Pay and benefits 

Although gender pay gaps are not usually caused by (illegal) unequal pay for equal work, it’s worth reviewing your pay practices for any unintended discrimination  

Start by asking:  

  • How do starting salaries for men and women compare?   
  • How do you reward experience? It’s all too easy to say that one person has more experience than another, but if challenged, could you explain what exactly you mean by ‘experience’ and how it justifies a difference in pay – even if experience did once justify a difference, does it still do so?  
  • How are pay rises and bonuses allocated to men and women in your organisationAre you confident that managers are making objective decisions, based on performance? Women are less likely than men to ask for a pay rise, but just as likely to get one if they do ask. What can you do to ensure everyone in your organisation knows why they’re paid what they are, what they need to do to progress and how to get a pay rise 

Will we ever close the gap? 

With so many factors contributing to the gender pay gap, it’s clear to see that closing it won’t be easy and won’t happen overnight. But we mustn’t be disheartened by slow progress or, in some cases, widening gaps.  

Employers need to remember that even those factors that may seem outside of their direct control are their responsibility too – if we take a collective and long-term view, we can and should close the gap Understanding the causes of your gender pay gap is an important first-step, and will help you create a narrative to accompany your data and an action plan for closing the gap (follow our gender pay gap reporting countdown on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn for more advice on that in the coming weeks) 

Is it all worth the effort? I certainly think so. The actions we take to close the gender pay gap will not just help create equality, but they’ll help us create better work and working lives all round – for the benefit of individuals, businesses, economies and society.   After all, women make up around half the talent pool, so attracting, retaining and enabling them to reach their full potential is central to future success.  

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.