If you listen carefully, you can hear the final few bars of the Countdown clock just about to land on its final gong. That’s because midnight tomorrow is the deadline for all companies in the UK with over 250 members of staff, including part-time workers, to publish the median salaries of their female and male staff in order to expose the gender pay gap. But we won’t need a Carol Vorderman to do the maths. It’s safe to say that the numbers will overwhelmingly conclude that the UK has a considerable gender pay gap problem.
And we’ve already started to see this from the 2,675 companies that have reported their results (at the time of writing) from a range of sectors, including Boots, HSBC, Virgin, Goldman Sachs and ITN (there are another 6,325 to go, including half of the FTSE 100). As it currently stands, 76 per cent of UK businesses pay men a higher median hourly rate than women.
Enforcing mandatory publishing of salaries in order to shame companies into tackling the pay gap came from David Cameron during the coalition in 2015. Well, sort of. We actually have feminist superwoman Harriet Harman to thank for the initiative, indebted to a clause she put in the Equality Act 2010, five years earlier. Yet, of course, no story is complete without an average man claiming a brilliant woman’s idea and, in a speech to business leaders at the time, Cameron acted upon the clause, saying that he hoped to “cast sunlight on the discrepancies and create the pressure we need for change, driving women's wages up".
Those discrepancies have sure got some sunlight on them so far. Just take a look at the list The Pool has collated: EasyJet – a 45 per cent pay gap; Barclays – 43.5 per cent; The Guardian – 12.1 per cent; Channel 4 – 24.2 per cent. And, all of a sudden, there’s a flurry of talks about task forces, targets and sad-faced CEOs vowing to do better.
This, however, comes after some companies dreamt up a cunning plan of pretending there was no gender pay gap, like Hugo Boss, who were exposed by the FT for publishing “improbable” results. When they were forced to republish, lo and behold, they went from a mysterious 0 per cent to 76.5 per cent median gender pay gap. Elsewhere, a Dispatches investigation recently revealed how consultants are offering hacks to get round the reporting, including creating reduncies, withholding directors’ pay and splitting a company in two. Perhaps most telling is how many companies are yet to report this close to deadline, without doubt hoping that their figures will get lost in the last-minute avalanche of data the press will try to sift through.
The process, however, is not without criticism. The Guardian has called it a “blunt tool”, which, as Louise Dalingwater, an associate professor of British politics and economic policy at Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris, points out, doesn’t reflect the complexity of the problem. She writes that publishing these numbers is not necessarily the best use of everyone’s time. Instead, she argues, “Policies and practices at the firm level and within the household as well as government policy must be part of the equation. At the governmental level, macroeconomic policies need to be more gender sensitive and welfare policies need to be implemented that do not discriminate against women.” It short, we need a much more complex arsenal than this list to tackle such an ingrained, structural problem.
Because that’s what the story behind these numbers actually tells – the systemic and institutional sexist hurdles that stop women from getting top jobs. If they are in line for senior roles, they face a stubborn culture that isn’t happy to see them there. And, alternatively, we still see women in the majority of low-skilled, undervalued, underpaid and part-time work, often because of the disproportionate burden of care they are expected to pick up. One law firm published a press release pointing out that their figures would be more equal if they didn’t have to include their all-female staff of secretaries, but they seemed to have missed the point – why are all the lowest-paid members of their staff women?
Furthermore, we can see from these numbers already published that there is a culture of reward for men. Not only are they granted access to positions of power (and therefore pay) through a societal path that gives them plenty of leg-ups, but they are rewarded for getting there. Sky, for example, has a reported a bonus gap of 40 per cent; ITV has a 49 per cent bonus gap; Goldman Sachs has a 72 per cent bonus gap. And another thing: these numbers don’t reveal the intersectional nature of the gender pay gap or bonus gap. Women of colour are more likely to earn less and be in fewer top roles, as are women with disabilities. The BBC salary list earlier this year also revealed the issues of class that prevent women getting into top jobs.
No longer can women’s inability to reach the top ranks of their sector be something only considered by small groups of women organising themselves out of frustration and lack of alternative
That’s not to say this is a wasted exercise – the fear of publishing salaries has caused companies to offer improved maternity and paternity benefits, and, as I have been personally told, women have received unsolicited bonuses and pay rises as a way of softening the inevitable blow. But, more than that, it has forced this conversation into the spotlight. No longer can women’s inability to reach the top ranks of their sector be something only considered by small groups of women organising themselves out of frustration and lack of alternative. These conversations will be had by board members – who will be mostly be men – and by CEOs – who will mostly be men. As we know only too well, forcing society to treat women fairly tends to involve a pretty public trial and execution.
What will happen next is hard to say. Some organisations like Channel 4 are setting themselves targets (50:50 gender balance of the top 100 earners by 2023) to employ more senior women. But now women know the nature of a company, attracting top female talent won’t be easy. Will pipelines suddenly open up, like a red sea parting for women to access the C-Suite? Probably not. But has a message been sent that the gender pay gap is something that needs to be finally, properly addressed? I’d be as optimistic as to hope so. In our era of call-out culture, companies face not only potential talent walking away but potential customers, too.
Tomorrow won’t mark a milestone, but it is a start. As we’re having a global conversation around women in the workplace, there’s no better time to understand our value there. This next bit might not be pleasant; going in to work might not feel great. But the hardest conversations are often the most important. Reporting these salaries is like lifting up a giant rug and seeing everything that’s been swept underneath. If we can see the true extent of the problem, we can start to do something about it.