Pay gaps and pachyderms

10 March 2022      Ruth Turner, Membership Officer

Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. 

That is the message of International Women’s Day 2022 with the mission that together we can forge women’s equality and collectively we can all #BreakTheBias. 

I am writing this piece as a reflection on #IWD2022 and to consider how we keep up the momentum after the day’s events have passed and the purple balloons have deflated, writes UHR Strategic Projects and Research Manager Emma Brookes. Are such events just a highlight for our social media calendar or will we take the opportunity to drive meaningful change for women at work? 

Following on from my colleague Sophie Crouchman’s recent blog, there is much more to be said on the subject of Gender Pay Gap. On IWD, I attended a CIPD Manchester Fellow’s event asking ‘if pay transparency is the answer to gender pay equality’ with Professor Jill Rubery, Executive Director of the Work & Equalities Institute. This session reviewed the EU’s proposed pay transparency directive which includes;  

  1. Pay transparency for job-seekers – pay ranges in vacancy notices and employers to not be allowed to ask prospective workers about their pay history. 
  1. Right to information for workers – right to request information from their employer on their individual pay level. 
  1. Reporting on gender pay gap – extending to categories of workers doing the same work or work of equal value for internal purposes. 
  1. Joint pay assessment with workers’ representatives – where a gender pay gap of a minimum of 5% cannot be justified on objective gender neutral factors. 

“So, what?” I hear you ask. Brexit gives the UK independence from EU directives so this isn’t relevant anymore. Except that if we want to actually make headway in pay equality, then we clearly need to do more. Since the requirement to report gender pay gap came into force in 2017, we have not seen much shift. The CIPD confirmed the average pay gap of UK firms that reported in the past financial year was 10.4% (an 0.9% increase from 2019) with the mean average unchanged at 13.3%; worryingly, the number of organisations reporting their gender pay gap figures is down 11%. Back in 2019, UHR’s Helen Scott and Paul Boustead wrote about ‘silver tortoises’; the concrete actions that universities can take to reduce the gender pay gap. Many of you many have implemented some or even all of them – it would be interesting to hear if you have seen progress from doing so. 

The analysis by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL) on the strength of current gender pay legislation puts the UK in joint last place of six countries, significantly behind Spain, France and South Africa. Furthermore, it is easy to criticise the gender pay gap ‘process’. It is an arbitrary date, a snapshot based only on a point in time. It requires organisations to have robust pay systems and people trained to work with the data and analyse the findings. It relies on interpretation which in complex organisations can be a challenge. However, it certainly seems like it is here to stay and this year there was a very public link between gender pay gap reporting and IWD. Organisations that were using Twitter to publicly celebrate #IWD2022 were seeing their posts quickly retweeted by the ‘Gender Pay Gap Bot’ with their reported pay gap figure for all to see, “calling out hypocritical corporate fauxminism”. This led to some organisations deleting their original tweets or reposting the tweet without the IWD hashtag, which seems cringeworthy at best.  

Are we naïve enough to presume that the gender pay gap will right itself in time? Or could we challenge ourselves to make some bolder decisions whilst the longer-term societal factors we rely on for justification become more aligned to equality at work and in pay. Is it acceptable that it may take over 135 years (that’s 2157 by the way!!) to close the Global Gender Pay Gap as reported by the World Economic Forum? With this in mind, with ethnicity pay reporting gaining traction and with disability pay gap reporting perhaps on the horizon, now is the time to get our houses in order. And that is no small task.  

So - how exactly do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

Use of salary history might be a sufficiently meaty place to start chewing through this particular pachyderm. My experience in the education sector is that salary history is frequently used to justify starting salaries above the bottom of a grade or within a benchmarked pay range. Yet we have no basic understanding of how that previous salary was determined and evidence shows that men are prone to negotiating higher starting salaries than women. So, we are using poor data and then failing to correct for stereotypical gender-based behaviour at this crucial stage of employment; a stage which will lead to lifelong differences in pay due to the cumulative effect over time. There is some empirical evidence from the US where salary history bans were in place in 12 states in 2019 (now 21); one study (Sinha 2019) showed the bans reduced gender pay gap by 4.5% points in weekly earnings. Even if Brexit means we don’t have a directive steering our hand, maybe there’s an opportunity to rethink this approach and refocus, objectively, on the successful candidate’s performance through selection. 

Whilst we’re at it, let’s look at colleague populations that sit outside the pay spine and ask if we are doing enough to ensure there is no inequity there. My colleague Sophie has highlighted that only 29% of all UK professors are women; we have a legal and moral duty to ensure that those who do make it are paid fairly and equitably. Do we have the right systems and processes in place? Are they objective? Might they have a disproportionately negative impact for colleagues who are (or have been) part time or had career breaks for caring responsibilities? We might not like what we find when we pick up that stone; but rather than put it back down for another day we can face the issue head on and do the right thing. 

Times are changing and business are being challenged to shift their focus from short-term thinking and consider all of their stakeholders and the ESG impact of their activities. We will be expected to be more transparent and care more. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if we capitalise on the opportunity and drive forward ideas in a different way it could be a good thing, a very good thing. @PayGapApp’s mantra is “Deeds not words: Stop posting platitudes. Start fixing the problem.” It is hard to disagree. 

Now it’s over to you. Will you be having these same conversations on #IWD2023? Will your daughter be having them in 2043 or future female descendants still making the same arguments in *gulp* 2157?  

We can make a difference if we follow the IWD overarching call to action.  

Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.  

If your University is trying new ways to eat the Pay Gap Elephant, I would love to hear about it – please get in touch at It may be that together we can explore the different options and learn from each other’s successes or failures; you can start the debate by commenting on this article which automatically generates a discussion board item. 

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