Publishing data on gender pay not enough

On Monday evening, CIPR hosted a Debating Group event at the House of Commons where routes and roadmaps to tackling the gender pay gap were analysed, discussed and picked apart.

The motion ‘Requiring large firms to publish pay data will end the gender pay gap in a generation’ was proposed by Mary Whenman, President at Women in PR and seconded by Lisa Townsend, a lobbyist and former Conservative parliamentary candidate. Sarah Pinch, CIPR Past President, led the opposition of the motion, and was supported by Stuart Bruce, CIPR Council member and Founder of Stuart Bruce Associates.

PR has had the gender pay gap in its sights since the CIPR first published the PR pay gap figure as part of State of the Profession in 2012/13. The last available data set from February 2015 put the salary gap at £12,591 in favour of men in PR; with further regression analysis revealing £8,483 of that amount was simply down to the single factor of being a man vs. being a woman.

Awareness of this business critical issue has grown so much so that late in 2015, as part of the PRWeek Power Book, more than 250 industry leaders were asked what action should be taken to tackle the problem. While some of the answers may cause you to wonder if the dinosaurs really did die out thousands of years ago, many respondents advocated publishing data would be a game changer in driving awareness into action.

On a national level, data tells us the gender pay gap across the UK is 19.2%, but information about differences in contractual terms can only be derived from employers’ payroll and human resource data. It is to this end, through enacting Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010, that the Government intend to introduce legislation to make every private sector company with 250 employees or more publish the gap between its average male and female earnings. It was whether or not this measure would be the catalyst for change that was the focus of Monday night’s debate.

Debate summary

As the proposer of the motion, Mary was resolute on how this initial piece of legislation should be seen as just the start, arguing “gender pay legislation will increase over the next 20 years and the threshold will reduce and be applied to an increasing number of companies.” Adding that “we have seen this in other aspects of our lives to effect behaviour change”, citing the ban on smoking in public places as delivering lasting generational change.

Mary also shared the results of last year’s Women in PR and PRWeek #prpaygap survey which evidence a groundswell of support for voluntary reporting of gender pay discrepancies by agencies of all sizes, together with a pledge by industry leaders to tackle the issue head on. “What gets measured gets managed.”

One of the strongest views shared by Mary and Lisa was that publishing data would drive action on gender pay by millennials due to their appetite for “greater transparency and social responsibility”. Mary argued that “as the war for talent rages in the PR industry, millennials will use gender pay data when assessing potential employers.”

Lisa added to this, acknowledging “millennials see the world differently” and with data in hand “the managers of tomorrow” would even “seek to redefine what they consider to be outdated ideas about gender itself. They are happy to share everything, all the time, with everyone. And this includes their salaries. The very notion of inequality rightly offends them and the gender pay gap will be no different.”

In opposing the motion, Sarah and Stuart acknowledged that whilst publishing data would be beneficial, it didn’t tackle the root cause of the problem, wouldn’t bring about generational change and was a “20th century solution to a 21st century problem.”

“It’s not enough to publish statistics”, said Sarah. She also feared that if companies just give an overall figure, not figures tier by tier, “organisations would defend their own statistics by saying the comparisons cannot clearly be made.”

From offering greater incentives for employers to deliver flexible working to removing other barriers that influence career progression, Sarah was convincing in her passion that “the Government must outline a clear roadmap to speeding up the route to pay parity.” Adding that “if the gap continues to close at the same rate as it has since 1997, it will take until 2053 to achieve pay parity … that simply isn’t good enough for me, or our children.”

Stuart was also bullish in his opposition to the motion, “legislation alone won’t solve the problem. Not in five years, not in 10 years, not in 30 years. Legislation is tough on inequality, but we need to be tough on the causes of inequality. We won’t win this fight with dry reports. We’ll win it in people’s hearts and in minds.”

“Society has largely been shaped around the needs of men”, said Bruce, “from childcare to housework to caring for elderly parents. If we are to tackle the gender pay gap we need equality in the workplace, at home and in society.”

It was this argument that appeared to strike a chord in the room. That even though legislation has existed on Equal Pay for roughly the last half-century, changing perceptions and actions at work and at home would only end the gender pay gap. The end result of the debate was clear; the motion was defeated almost unanimously by the 50+ in attendance. Data on it’s own will not be enough.

A carrot and stick approach

So what can be done to drive effective workplace change? For this author it’s a combination of carrot – and stick.

Under current proposals, government legislation would only require six of the UK’s largest public relations firms to comply. SMEs make up 99% of the UK PR consultancy sector, and while it’s clear there’s appetite from smaller business owners in the PR sector to report gender pay gap data (see Dynamo PR leading the way) – public availability of such facts and figures should simply be seen as the first act in ensuring business sustainability and growth, and definitely not a fluffed up tick-box exercise.

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that the challenges to overcome in tackling the gender pay gap are more acute for small and medium sized businesses, rather than large companies with well supported, skilled and knowledgeable HR and people management functions. So to drive generational change and end the pay gap once and for all, the proposed 250 threshold makes little sense.

Yes, transparency from the top can provide employers and UK PLC with greater insight into progress on gender parity, and yes it should drive a greater focus on action in light of the board level interest that publication of information can generate, but reporting alone will not solve the problem. Supporting organisations in acquiring the skills and knowledge to achieve gender pay parity will be key.

For PR, this can be achieved through enabling managers and directors to make better and fairer decisions on pay and reward through providing greater access to training, knowledge and resources. This will not just positively affect gender pay, but also have a lasting impact on all underrepresented groups who continue to be left behind.

The publication of today’s UKCES 2015 Skills Survey underlines this, revealing that “the main people and personal skills lacking across the UK workforce pertain to time management, management and leadership” and was an even greater issue for small businesses. A fact also backed on the Today programme this morning by Mike Cherry, Policy Director at the FSB.

Addressing this skills gap shouldn’t take more than a generation, and yes data can be a start – but only by being great managers of people as well as great managers of PR will this sector progress on the mission to retain talent, make the most of its existing recruits and deliver a satisfactory solution on equal pay.

For those of you interested in reading a verbatim record of the debate, a Hansard-style write-up will be shared online by the Debating Group by Monday 1 Feb.

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