In just over 120 days, or 17 and a half weeks, or four months exactly, every single company based in the UK that employs at least 250 people will have to publish the average wage it pays its female workers alongside the average salary pocketed by their male counterparts.
It was with great promise that the legislation ordering the disclosure was passed this year. Some hailed it as a milestone in our battle towards achieving gender equality in the workplace. Others admitted that it was a first step in a lengthy process, but nonetheless a significant move.
Several organisations have ripped off the sticking plaster already, perhaps hoping to bury their own humiliating news in a recent flurry of less-than-encouraging Brexit headlines. But what the reports so far have suggested is that we should not be hopeful that this legislation is going to prompt real, monumental change – or even something akin to that. We’re only just preparing the field.
Yes, gender pay gap reporting is a nice exercise in transparency – in feel-good corporate and social responsibility – but there’s a risk that it becomes a largely ineffective “naming and shaming” campaign, and that it fails to provide the impetus and concrete tools for achieving lasting progress.
The first piece of evidence that points to this thesis being correct is the scant attention that the public and media have paid to reports that have been released so far. It seems that we’ve become immune to them. And that’s likely because they’re telling us something we already know.
Can you cite the most recent average gender pay gap at the Bank of England? How about at budget airline easyJet? Or oil major Shell? I didn’t think so.
All are above 20 per cent. All underscore the desperate need for us to modernise the deeply outdated make-up of the workforce when it comes to seniority and compensation. All companies vowed to take action, promote female talent, encourage training and help women to return after career breaks. But isn’t this what we’ve been hearing for years?
The shock factor – which might have spurred a conversation and desire for change in the past – has simply died. Since the BBC pay report earlier in the year, we’ve all known that the gender pay gap is bleak. It’s an accepted reality. News about it is becoming dull and, well, not newsworthy. And tragically for most of us, that’s a good enough reason to make it someone else’s problem.
So what can be done?
I agree that the law is certainly a good place to start. Since 1970 we’ve been subject to the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting any less favourable treatment between men and women doing the same job in terms of pay and conditions. Who knows what state we would be in if this were not enshrined in law.
But what about maternity benefits and leave? That’s an example of legislation that could so easily be changed to create a more level playing field – one that would help women whose ambitions for promotion and career advancement are being hampered by their desire to have a family.
As a reminder, statutory maternity benefits in the UK are pitiful compared to those offered by many of our European counterparts. For the first six weeks of leave, women are entitled to 90 per cent of their regular pay. But in the subsequent 33 weeks they get just £140.98 per week – at most.
What signal does that send to half the population about how much we value their contribution to society? And bearing all of this in mind, is it really so surprising that scores of new mothers choose to exit the workforce altogether?
There are of course other measures that could be taken to help shrink the chasm: Impose a fine on companies with an above-average gap. Reward those with a below-average one. Introduce a compulsory quota for female representation on publicly listed firms’ boards. Make it illegal for final-round candidate pools for management roles at public companies to be all male.
The options – at least – are not rocket science and although I fully appreciate that there’s no quick fix, there are certainly steps that would be more effective at achieving progress than the ones we’re currently committed too.
We know there’s a gender pay gap. We know the stats are dismal. A deluge of – what should be, but won’t be – shocking facts and figures ahead of April next year won’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
So how about the Government actually acts on the problem for once? We’ve got the evidence. Now it’s time for action.