That the Gender Pay Gap has widened in favour of men was small surprise to anyone who has followed this anticlimax of a watershed policy. BBC figures last week showed that in the 12 months since large companies became mandated to publish their pay gap, almost half have seen a swing towards men; eight in ten still pay men more than women, and a quarter report a gap of more than 20 per cent.
Why is this not surprising? Because introducing this with no requirement to demonstrate progress, or show concrete commitment to improve, immediately saw this relegated to a number-crunching task for HR. Addressing the Gender Pay Gap is not the most pressing subject being discussed at the board table; nor, I imagine, being factored into discussions among hiring managers.
The reality is, in the current climate of uncertain futures and wobbling pounds, gender equality in the workplace is just not a priority.
A year ago, as corporate communication advisers, we were asked by clients to help them "manage the reputational impact" of their "unanticipated gap in gender pay". Organisations had little idea of this woeful inequality and were now absolutely committed to correcting it. This made it a relatively straightforward communication. We saw a lot of rhetoric about "commitment to improvement" and "showing willing to change".
Our advice was thus: you need to acknowledge the numbers, vocalise a clear action plan and report on that plan frequently. Not in April 2019.
We also stressed the priority audience for this is not the media or your customers – it is your employees. However "bad" the gender pay picture looks internally, you can turn this into a positive by working with your employees to set a clear direction for turnaround. As we have seen this month, we foresaw lengthy journeys and few quick wins.
Normally, I love to be right. On this occasion, not so much. At Golin, we commissioned our own gender pay gap research ahead of the 2019 figures being published, which flagged that only 10 per cent of employees had been impressed with their employer's actions in the year following their first Gender Pay Gap report.
Of the 1,000 senior professionals we spoke to, half spoke of their distrust in expecting their organization to "fudge" pay gap figures, and disillusionment where employers had only addressed the gap in a "tokenistic" way.
The result is that nearly three-quarters of employees are prepared to leave their organization over this issue, with a 15 per cent increase in women suggesting they would leave. A year ago employees were prepared to see what was delivered. A year on, and organisations who have missed this opportunity will start to see an impact on the bottom line.
This makes it all the more frustrating that the Gender Pay Gap still seems to remain an issue for HR to tackle alone – apparently in the absence of communications expertise. Last week, when we saw a well-known auto repair firm explain that their swing of 30 per cent towards higher-paid males was due to a "number of senior staff leaving their jobs" (you don't say!), we can pretty safely conclude this didn't go through the reputational filter.
Or a female sports clothing brand reporting a 66 per cent gap in favour of men due to "the low proportion of men working in the business". These statements raise more questions than they answer: Why are people leaving? Why don't women want to work here? And most important of all, what does this messaging say about us to our people, our customers and the wider world?
So back to this need to set a plan, and the need is greater than ever. Three quarters of those we spoke to said they want employers to be "named and shamed" for their gender pay gap. One third feel poor gender pay gap is "more toxic than corporate tax avoidance, zero hours contracts and poor environmental credentials". And we have all witnessed the massive commercial impact of businesses mishandling those reputational issues.
The message here is clear: if businesses are reluctant to communicate thoughtfully and proactively about how they're going to act henceforth, their people certainly aren't. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg, from that alone we know it hinders business reputation and commercial success. For those batting this 'issue' into the long grass (or down to HR), they do so at their peril.