Pilita Clark: Five ways to seem you care about women at work

New report highlights gender-based issues but its recommendations won’t work

Is your company full of women who bang on about the gender pay gap and all the top jobs held by men? Would you like to look as if you care, without doing anything that would really make a difference? Now you can, thanks to a new British government report that offers a handy five-step guide.

I am sure this was not the intention of the people in the Government Equalities Office, who commissioned the study into what stops women from progressing at work and what helps them get ahead. Yet the message is clear in the research done by the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at King's College London.

Its report summarises 175 papers on gender and work, a topic of more than academic interest for the thousands of British employers required to report their gender pay gap – the difference between the average hourly pay earned by men and women.

The gap is 17.3 per cent nationally for all workers and unlike unequal pay, when women are paid less than men for the same work, it is perfectly legal.


Yet laws are imperfect: British women earn £263,000 (€305,000) less on average than men over the course of their lifetimes, official data shows. Even women with a PhD or masters degree make less over their lives than men with undergraduate degrees.

A big chunk of the gap is explained by women working in lower-paid sectors or going part-time after having a baby. But that is not the whole story.

The new study says a sizeable share of the pay gap is due to “unobserved factors” that cannot be explained by the data on, say, women having fewer years in full-time work than men. This could include discrimination, harassment or personal choices, “constrained or otherwise”. Either way, the pay gap is large, persistent and glaring, so a lot of companies have been trying to close it.

Unhappily, the report shows what they are doing is often useless. I doubt this is intentional, but if you wanted a five-point plan for ineffective action, this is what to do.

First, set up a women’s employee group. They can forge “a perception of an inclusive culture” and may ease social isolation, the report says, but there is no strong evidence they help women to progress.

Second, offer training and networking opportunities after hours or outside the office. Women are often too time-pressed to take part.

Third, start a mentoring programme. Here, the evidence suggests any positive effect on women’s earnings and advancement is “small”. It is hard to be sure mentoring causes improvement: it could be that those choosing to be mentored are more highly motivated. There is also a difference between a mentor, who offers advice, and a sponsor who actively advocates for a mentee to be promoted, and some research suggests male mentees get more sponsorship.

The fourth step is diversity training. The report finds no evidence it has a long-term effect on attitudes. Worse, it may backfire if mandatory, “creating anger and resistance among those forced to attend”.

Finally, and to me surprisingly, make sure hiring committees include women. There is little evidence it helps and one study of 150,000 candidates for the Spanish judiciary is worrying. It found female candidates were less likely to be picked when a committee had a greater share of women, while men were more likely to be chosen when a committee had at least one woman on it.

So what should companies really be doing to help?

The report’s list is long and sometimes onerous. Extreme hours and a belief that part-time workers are less committed are among the biggest barriers to female advancement, so flexible or part-time working should be offered widely and championed by bosses.

Women also suffer if pay or promotion decisions are made behind closed doors, especially if the deciders are “social cloners”: people who champion others like themselves. Clear salary standards and formal career planning can help.

So can audits of past promotion decisions to see if selection criteria really predict performance.

The study has flaws. It says policies helping men do more childcare are “essential”, yet skims over one clear solution: generous parental leave for all, not just women. Still, it is a good starting point for any business that genuinely wants to change – and a bright warning light for those that merely want to pretend. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019