THURSDAY 1 MAR 2018 3:45 PM


Conversations about gender issues in the workplace are not limited to Hollywood and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Bringing gendered power-dynamics into the light is destroying the reputations and shareholder prices of many who are perceived as perpetrating or being complicit in workplace gender disparities.

For the first time, on 4 April UK companies with over 250 employees have to release their gender pay gap results publicly and businesses need to know how to talk about their results. Stories are going to keep appearing about the best and worst gender pay gap organisations. How they disclose this information will be a key to their continued survival. London-based Flagship Consulting has released a guide to this important and awkward task. Its highlights are as follows.

According to the OECD, since 2013 25 countries have instituted national reforms to deal with wage disparities. Social acknowledgement of this reality is happening on a global scale. Describing the situation, author of The Gender Agenda, Ros Ball, has said that “A huge part of it is getting people to acknowledge that gender bias is there. It is starting to happen, and things like gender pay gap reporting are going to force companies to do that.” Nevertheless, the gender pay gap in the UK has not decreased in the three years prior to April 2017, sitting steadily at 14.1%.

To understand gender pay gaps, people need to know how these gaps differ from issues to do with equal pay. Equal pay refers to a legal standard outlined in the Equal Pay Act (1970) and  Equality Act (2010), whereby people must be paid equally for equal work. The gender pay gap refers to a company's mean and median gender pay gaps over a set time, irrespective of seniority. Employees in equivalent roles might be paid the same, but if the total salary averages for a company skew towards a gender pay imbalance then there is a gender pay gap. A common example of this scenario is when senior leadership roles in the highest paid positions are staffed by men, trumping the average pay of men in a company over women, even if lower-level positions are held at salary parity.

Once a company has its gender pay gap data, it will have to tread carefully in how it shares these findings with its employees. The major effect that salary earnings have on people’s lives means that anticipating the reactions of employees will be a key to maintaining company morale and acquiring new talent. A 2016 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) suggested that internal information like gender pay gap data needs to be made known to to its employees and that according to them “Employees leave managers, not companies.” Group HR Director for J Sainsbury’s PLC echoes this sentiment, stating that “Fundamentally, companies need to have all-inclusive talent strategies that enable all colleagues, whatever their background, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or whether they have a disability, to fulfil their potential.” Neuroscientist, Dr Jack Lewis has explained that conversations with colleagues need to “create equity… [and] be direct… Ensure transition to equality and transparency, with honesty and genuine regret. Say you are embarrassed.”

Furthermore, both inside organisations and with the public, each business will have to be transparent when it discloses its results. Whatever the internal reasoning may be for its findings, a crisis communications strategy needs to be in place to deal with how things will appear and what the plan is to fix it. Specifically, the heads of organisations will have to be ready to own up to and commit to change. Incredibly, even the UK government recognises this and has on its website tips on how to phrase this ‘Supportive Narrative,’ saying, “A gender pay gap doesn’t necessarily mean your organisation has acted inappropriately or discriminatorily. Adding a narrative helps anyone reading the statement to understand your organisation’s view of why a gender pay gap is present and what the organisation intends to do to close it.” Companies known for having the worst responses to the gender pay gap are not going to sit well with the public (and therefore investors) nor their existing staff and potential employees.

Finally, the Flagship reporting team found that a communications strategy for gender pay gap data has to include a considered timeline for releasing its results. Just as in Forbes recent article about handling redundancies, employees need to know the bad news first. Period. A 2016 study by Robert Half Management Resources found that company data should be shared with employees on a schedule, else they “risk having employees draw their own conclusions on what is happening with the business.” With April looming, this means some businesses need to start talking to their employees now.  

For companies that have already started working internally on their gender issues, some savvy organisations may want to disclose their findings to the public soon. Organisations need only look at Oxfam’s recent PR catastrophe involving its aid workers and sex workers in Haiti to note how the systematic workings of whole organisations are being put to the fire when they hide or minimise wrongdoings. Being required to disclose the information anyway, coming to be known for having a thorough gender pay gap strategy may mitigate some of the inevitably bad PR that will come to many organisations once the data is released and give some brands an edge over their competitors.

The gender pay gap data is not going to lie. Many of the 9,000 UK businesses having to disclose their data are about to find out that ‘sorry’ is not enough. Businesses need to be prepared to sincerely apologise and then change their ways for good.

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