Time for Irish business to check gender scorecard

Muted response to poor recent data from UK shows much remains to be done

Data from the UK shows the gender pay gap persists and has widened in some sectors  since first reports were published in April 2018.

Data from the UK shows the gender pay gap persists and has widened in some sectors since first reports were published in April 2018.

 

Amid Brexit headlines, media coverage of the recent publication of the second year of gender pay gap data in the UK has been predictably subdued.

A year on from the introduction of legislation that requires organisations employing more than 250 employees to report the difference in pay between men and women, a disappointing trend has emerged. Comparing hourly pay and bonuses, the gender pay gap persists and, worse, in some sectors the gap has widened since first reports were published in April 2018. In eight out of 10 organisations, women are paid less than men.

Pay audits, such as those required under UK legislation, clearly point to an earnings penalty for women, who remain firmly stuck in the lower rungs of the pay ladder. Some theorists attribute this to a tendency to devalue work typically carried out by women – simply because it is performed by women. The devaluation of women’s work is illustrated by a simple question: why are men in warehouses paid more on an hourly basis to lift boxes than women are paid to lift patients in care homes?

However, the pay penalty exists not just between men and women across different occupations. It is evident also when pay within sectors and professions is examined. In some of the best-paid jobs, such as the legal, accounting and finance professions, women earn less in basic pay and significantly less in bonuses.

This is explained by a promotions gap. Too many women are clustered in the lower tiers of those occupations which, unless addressed, will continue to stretch the pay gap.

For more than 40 years, a familiar argument has been resurrected: time will cure discrimination and its legacy of inequality; if women can just wait, opportunity for promotion will eventually trickle down, bringing pay equality.

The UK data reinforces the reality that equality will not be won by waiting. Although broadly welcomed, the reporting scheme has now come under fire for failing to require employers to provide actionable remediation plans along with their data.

Nonetheless, pay gap reporting is important for the powerful statistics it provides. In my doctoral study of career progression and promotion in the legal profession, I conducted statistical analysis to compare women’s promotion chances, considering qualifications, experience, age and length of tenure with employer. My research confirms that even when all these objective characteristics are equal, women have about half the chance of promotion enjoyed by their male colleagues.

Statistically and in daily lived experience, being female is the most significant predictor of career stagnation.

Between bouts of Brexit angst, the Oireachtas is considering a similar legislative scheme for mandatory pay reporting. What would this mean for Irish business?

Very little, some pessimists might conclude, based on the underwhelming response of UK business to the current round of data. The public censure and legal sanctions anticipated by supporters of mandatory pay reporting have not yet materialised.

This may be explained by what some feminists call “gender fatigue”, the idea that, over the past four decades, surely the equality argument has been dealt with. However, since the 1960s and the emergence of second-wave feminist writing such as Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, to the more digestible and business friendly Lean In philosophy of Sheryl Sandberg, business has failed to grapple with a new reality of living, working, caring and mortgage- or rent-paying, which means that, for both men and women, working arrangements may no longer be fit for purpose.

Work that can be performed successfully only by an “ideal” employee, unencumbered by external concerns, is work that doesn’t fit the ‘new normal’ of dual-income families. Organisations need to ask if their promotion structures and everyday working practices recognise this reality, or whether they date from a labour market which no longer exists, typified by the single breadwinner.

What can businesses do to address gender inequality in their organisations? Just as businesses got ready for the General Data Protection Regulation, firms should get ahead of mandatory pay audits. Even firms that may not come within the ambit of the mandatory reporting can benefit reputationally from addressing the pay gap.

Gender scorecard

Based on my research, there is a simple but powerful “gender scorecard” which firms can use to tackle inequality. Here’s the short version:

– Collect and analyse pay data. Pay scales and rates ought to be readily available. Even the smallest firms can summarise how much they pay their staff without too much effort.

– Interrogate the data. Who earns what? Why are some jobs only done by women? Why are flexible or part-time arrangements taken up by women only – if they are even offered? What is it about certain roles that are unattractive or even hostile to women?

Exploring these questions with staff and line managers will help identify structural organisational issues that impede equality of opportunity.

– Take action. If hours of work, a “facetime culture” or inflexible working arrangements deter women (who statistically carry more responsibility for domestic and caring activities than men), consider alternatives. Importantly, manage performance and promotion from a quality perspective, not on a blunt equation of hours worked.

Only by taking positive and targeted action can organisations address the underlying reasons for inequality in promotion and pay. By tackling these questions, businesses show integrity and commitment to creating genuine and viable opportunities for women and men.

And in so doing, businesses can earn a sustainable competitive advantage in the war for talent and customer loyalty.

Suzanne Carthy is programme director at Griffith College Dublin graduate business school. She completed a doctoral dissertation on gender inequality in the legal profession in 2018 at UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School

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