Closing the gender pay gap requires a focus on female progression

Now the gender pay gap figures are laid bare, attention switches to the action needed to address the gap. An underrepresentation of women at the top of organisations is a heavily cited explanation for the difference in the average hourly earnings between all men and women in an organisation.

Government focus on women on boards of FTSE companies has already begun to focus the attention on equality of career opportunities within this cohort. However, there is still a long way to go until we reach gender parity, with many of the women in board positions being in non-executive roles, some women holding multiple appointments which can distort the figures, and questions asked whether progress has benefitted women from all backgrounds. Very positively, the transparency provided by gender pay gap reporting has brought the glass ceiling, or sticky floor, further into public scrutiny and onto the agenda for a wider population of organisations.

How do we break down the barriers to female progression to the top?

A lack of flexible working opportunities is a significant barrier to female career progression. Caring responsibilities for both children and elderly relatives are disproportionately taken on by women, making flexible working arrangements a necessity for many. These are easier to come by in junior roles, but opportunities to adopt working styles beyond the traditional 9-5 largely evaporate the higher up an organisation you go.

CIPD research has found that over the past 15 years, flexible working provision has increased, but the range of flexible working arrangements offered remains narrow, largely restricted to part-time working and flexi-time, and actual uptake has changed little. A huge talent pool of women wanting advancement remains untapped as a lack of innovative working approaches mean they’re not able to reach their full potential. Established practices such as job sharing and compressed hours are significantly underused.

Offering flexible working arrangements will not just aid progress on gender equality; we know that it enables many disadvantaged groups to access and progress in work.

To level the playing field we also need a reconsideration of paternity leave arrangements and how shared parental leave operates. At the moment there is a lack of adequate financial incentive for fathers to take up SPL and this is a key barrier preventing many working fathers from being able to fulfil their caring responsibilities. Many families will continue to have a lack of choice over who provides care and women will carry on facing a ‘motherhood penalty’. Many fathers may want to take leave or reduce their hours for childcare responsibilities and we need continued campaigning and support from government to help change societal views on caregiving which is one blocker to the low take-up of shared parental leave, and also role modelling from those who have done it to help break down barriers within organisation cultures.

Employers also need to ensure a strong female talent pipeline all the way through the organisation. Workforce data will reveal the points at which women are leaving the organisation and data from exit interviews may shed light on why. It should also be possible to see if female career progression tends to plateau at certain points. This insight can be used to identify and address the issues and help retain skilled people.

People often look at who has been promoted and who occupies top positions in the organisation to see if they are ‘like them’. This clearly visible cue sends an informal message about who succeeds in the organisation. Having role models at every level helps spur on people’s ambition to go for promotion.

HR has a significant role in all of these actions as most require a reconsideration of an organisation’s people policy and practice. But HR cannot change practice alone. Gender equality is the responsibility of everyone in the business. Leadership needs to set the tone and step up to champion change through their actions as well as their words. HR needs to work closely with line managers to ensure hiring, promotion and reward decisions are fair and unbiased. Line managers also need to be on the lookout for talented people who may not readily put themselves forward for promotion. Research has shown that women are unlikely to apply for a role unless they feel they meet the majority of criteria in a job description, whereas men will apply if they meet around 60% of the role requirements.

Finally, some of the causes of the gender pay gap, for example perceptions of gendered roles, are deep-rooted and societal. However, employers still have a key role in helping to address them. For example there is an ideal opportunity for employers to work with others in their industry to challenge and inspire school-age children about their subject and career choices, breaking down occupational gender stereotypes and providing role models.

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