How to close the pay gap

SPONSORED: For every $100 a woman earns, a man makes $258.

by Zahra Bahrololoumi
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2017

Why does the gender pay gap still persist?

First the gender pay gap is not about equal pay; it is a given that people should be paid the same for the same work regardless of gender and has been a legal requirement since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. The gender pay gap refers to the difference in the overall average of full-time pay across all levels in an organisation.

One factor why the gender pay gap persists is that women are under-represented at senior levels and this is driving down the overall average pay for women. At the entry level end of the scale, the choices young women are making at school and university are setting them up to enter the workforce with fewer digital skills. This limits their access to higher paid, technically oriented jobs, compared with their male peers. Finally, across the globe, many women still take on the ‘lion’s share’ of unpaid work, such as childcare and home duties – leading to a ‘hidden pay gap’.

What is digital fluency and how can it help to close the gap?

Digital fluency is the extent to which people embrace and use digital technologies to connect, learn and work. It’s the single most critical factor in closing the pay gap because it has the capacity to transform the employment prospects of women. It closes the gap on education, and access to it, on flexible working patterns, and refocuses organisations onto the kind of skills that women (with or without a STEM qualification) often possess. This year we undertook some research which shows that digital fluency will add nearly 100 million women to the paid workforce, with almost $2trn of additional income, while cutting decades off the pay gap by 2030.

Men are still more likely to take coding courses and be early adopters of tech than women. What can be done to change this?

There is a broad cultural conditioning we need to challenge and overcome right from primary school about what boys do and what girls do. Girls in our culture seem more wired to be compliant, to want to get things right. In subjects where there is a clear need to experiment, to take risks, that need to be confident of success is a barrier. Somehow we need to find ways to overcome that safety first mentality.

We must also demonstrate the relevance of STEM degrees and enable young women to see the value of these subjects at a younger age. It is ludicrous that girls outperform boys across the board but for reasons perhaps none of us fully understand yet, a boy who has scored poorly in the STEM subjects at GCSE, isn’t put off by that failure. More low-scoring boys than high-scoring girls continue STEM studies at both A level and degree level.

It’s been a while since I was at school but I also wonder how much IT and tech-related subjects have changed as a proposition. Is it still coding in the computer room for the sake of it? In which case, I’d pass. The application of technology and its capacity to help the way the world works and lives needs to be brought to life. Companies need to step up and inspire the next generation of students and equip them with key skills in relevant topics like AI and Blockchain.

If there was a more inclusive approach to the curriculum that included creativity (design thinking), application (live demos, external tours, real-life case studies) as well as fun, then this would naturally attract younger students and females overall.

There is also the fact that young women don’t pick more technically oriented careers in the first place. Companies need to get better at selling their career value proposition to women without STEM backgrounds. I am a case in point, I don’t have a technology degree yet I lead Accenture Technology. Organisations would attract more women if their message was focused on training and developing talented women regardless of degree subject.

Removing these barriers can come in many forms – more role models, making more of the role women in tech ARE already playing, challenging gender bias in schools, having family-friendly working practices, adopting a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind. None of the above are a nice to have – as technology transforms our lives, jobs, communities, we have to be sure that it’s not just men that are part of shaping that transformation.

Could you talk a little bit more about the impact of role models?

With role models, it’s perhaps the classic chicken and egg answer – the reason there aren’t more female women in tech is because there aren’t more women in tech.

Surrounded by male peers, they look up the organisation and struggle to find someone who faces the same choices and challenges that they are facing. There is a success gap. The message is clear – there are no women here because it isn’t possible for women to be successful here. That isn’t the case in equally tough careers in the law, in public service, in medicine.

Seeing enough women at the top is not only important from a role model perspective, but it’s also vital to have women in roles of influence where they can challenge cultural norms and practices that often alienate or unwittingly disadvantage them from participating. For example, scheduling client dinners in the evening when a woman has limited capacity to secure childcare arrangements at short notice.

How can digital fluency help working mothers advance their careers?

Motherhood does not necessarily slow a woman’s career progression. Of course, the responsibilities of parenthood still fall predominantly on women: 91% of mothers who are employed report that they have primary childcare responsibility outside of working hours. But increasingly digital technology is helping more women get into work, develop their skills, manage their work-life balance, capitalise on core skills such as collaboration, stakeholder management and empathy. Our research shows that women’s chances of working in high-paying industries increase 12% if they have flexible working hours and support to grow their careers.

But I’d firstly want to challenge the premise of the question – perhaps we should be looking at how changes in working patterns should be able to drive BOTH parents to manage their careers more flexibly to fit around all the various kinds of family commitments – children, older parents.

By 2030, digital fluency could...

• Add nearly100m women in paid work

• Reduce the pay gap by21%

• Add $1.9trn to women’s income

Zahra Bahrololoumi is MD for technology at Accenture UK and Ireland. She sits on Accenture’s UK board and was previously named on Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 list. Twitter: @ZahraS_B

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