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Why gender pay gap reporting alone will not end inequality (debating the issues)

Whenever I hear or read about a gender pay gap case, I can’t help wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s hardly news that men are paid on average more than women and does it really ‘matter’ how many big companies are outed for their salary inequalities?

The positive thing about this whole debate is that the issue is finally gaining some attention but we must be careful not to become too bogged down in statistics. What truly matters here is the underlying cultural shift that is required, from the boardroom down, to address the causes of gender pay inequality.

The leadership gap issue

The dearth of women in senior roles has long been bemoaned and this has a direct impact on the pay differential between men and women. It isn’t rocket science to understand that leadership roles command higher salaries and that the vast majority of these types of jobs are still going to men.

There are a number of reasons for this. One factor could be the way senior roles are advertised and the language that is used in recruitment. Canadian research looked at this topic in depth and discovered that women were often put off applying for jobs that used language such as ‘leader’ and ‘competitive’, whereas those same women responded more positively to words such as ‘interpersonal’ and ‘support’. If your company has a pay gap issue, take a look at the language you use when you recruit and make sure you are appealing equally to men and women when advertising for leadership roles.

The pay rise issue

Pay rises are given for a variety of reasons, not least of which is performance. However, when it comes to asking for pay rises and negotiating them, men tend to behave differently to women. They agitate for salary increases in a way that most women do not, and as a consequence they tend to be awarded a larger share of the pay rise pot.

Pay rises are often decided at senior management and boardroom level and although HR keep a handle on things, they are not the ones holding the purse strings and can find themselves impotent when it comes to trying to maintain an equal pay arena.

If equal pay is going to become a reality, therefore, there needs to be a cultural shift in the boardroom that recognises how pay awards are requested, negotiated and handed out to ensure it is not just those who shout loudest who are financially rewarded.

The motherhood issue

Paternity leave was one initiative introduced to try and address the motherhood penalty that women still face when building their careers. It is a nice idea but it hasn’t really had the impact that had been hoped for (hence, perhaps, why new legislation, including shared parental leave, has made its way onto the statute book) and there are many reasons for this. Going back to the leadership gap issue, if women are in lower paid roles they are more likely to be the ones taking a career break to look after children because the financial impact on the family is less.

Employers can help to overcome this challenge to women’s careers by providing training and development opportunities for women who are returning to work after a career break, to help them regain their skill status in the workplace. Offering greater opportunities for flexible working is another way bosses can support women into more senior roles and retain talented personnel who happen to be female.

The equality issue

No-one would argue against the fact that gender pay gap reporting is about equality. Of course it is, but equality is about so much more than that. Gender equality in the workplace calls for an ethos of equality to be adopted at every level of the organisation, encompassing training on discrimination, flexible working, management training and much more. Is your company actively addressing the imbalance between men and women? Are some jobs more appealing to women than men and if so can you do anything about that?

As a father of a boy and a girl, I hope they will grow up in a world where equality is taken for granted, but we have a long way to go. Yes, there has been progress in helping more women into science and engineering but what progress has been made towards steering more men into teaching and nursing?

If we are to have a truly equal society we must not be afraid to challenge all our gender preconceptions. The key responsibility for this lies with senior leaders in the boardroom who must look beyond the gender pay gap reporting statistics to find the underlying causes for pay disparities within their organisation.

Richard Port is founder and managing director of Boardside, a specialist law firm advising boards and senior management on employment law issues. To receive regular updates sign up to the monthly Boardside bulletin by emailing