Taking gender out of the gender pay debate

A narrow focus on targets misses the role of culture.

by Diana Parkes and Mandy Garner
Last Updated: 04 May 2018

The gender pay gap has featured large in the papers of late. And if this year brought a fierce focus on the issue, next year could bring a greater intensity to the debate because the figures have to be produced annually and organisations will be measured on progress made against their previous statistics.

This year they can issue reports pledging all sorts - or not, since many chose not to outline any action plan. Next year they will need to show evidence of progress and the years after they will have to show that any progress is sustained.

The gender pay gap involves a whole range of issues, but chief among them is the lack of women in senior positions in organisations across all sectors.

Is this because they don't want senior leadership roles? Of course, many might not, but why should women be so much more likely not to want them than men? Why do BAME workers not make it into the top levels either? Why too are so many women choosing to walk away from employment and set up on their own or change career path entirely?

Some, like many millennials, want greater flexibility, but they don't necessarily want to work less. Something deeper is at play, involving social assumptions, stereotypes and biases that are embedded into workplace culture.

Culture is your problem

The problem with pointing to ‘culture’ as the central causal issue, however, is that it can seem such a nebulous concept. The reaction can often be to put it into the ‘too difficult, not that urgent’ pile. How do you deal with something that feels like it exists in the ether?

You have to analyse it and identify how it affects those who need to thrive in it. If it stifles some, makes others ill and therefore struggle to perform as well as they could, while some profiles of people thrive, than this is YOUR problem.

Culture is not a benign backdrop, it is a powerful force, fundamental to an organisation's outcomes and it begins with leadership values and assumptions and lives on through interactions between individuals and groups.

Our unconscious assumptions affect thinking, listening, decision-making and behaviour, including an iniquitous form called micro-behaviours. We are more likely to listen to, respect, value, remember, credit, support, involve, look at, reply to, and consult those we assume have the knowledge, experience or capability in question. 

However, these assumptions are unsafe as they blinker us, restricting our field-of-vision for talent and potential to the pale, hetero male deliverers of the past.

There are two critical outcomes of allowing these assumptions to persist in the meeting rooms, project groups, talent reviews and water-cooler conversations. Firstly, the best thinking and best decisions can’t happen, and secondly, the talent that doesn’t get heard and isn’t valued becomes disengaged. The overall consequence is that the organisation guarantees consistent underperformance.

Hidden messages

This isn’t just about gender. Clearly if talent doesn’t get heard, valued or doesn’t even register on the radar, that talent is not going to be progressed and with persistent micro-messages being received about not being of value in this culture that talent will back off, throttle back and eventually leave.

Results from the 2017 Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey have quantified this contribution-to-value gap in the case of female employees. It showed that while 72.1% of women consistently contribute (‘speak’ up, when they could or should make a contribution) only 55.3% report having their contributions consistently valued.

And when this insight sits alongside US research which showed that the most common reason women leave corporate life is ‘to advance their career’ the scale of the issue and the risk comes into harsh focus.

Leaders need to understand that if you have human beings in your organisation then there will be unconscious assumptions undermining people and performance.

Addressing this nebulous saboteur starts, like all cultural change, from the top, with their commitment to embedding (and modelling) behaviours and measures that ensure all contributors are heard and valued.

Learning to drive a car is hard initially. But we learn because it opens up a world of opportunity. Very soon we do it automatically.

A virtuous cycle

When cultures embed behaviours that value all contributors, one outcome is that women progress – they are able to access higher levels and higher paid functions and they show that other women lower down the organisation that they can also succeed, so a virtuous cycle is created. This means that the gender pay gap rapidly narrows.

When groups feel valued they want to stay. They want to do more because it’s a positive experience and it increases their self esteem. This makes it worth going for new opportunities, going for promotion and it makes it worth coming back from maternity and paternity leave.

The gender pay gap has raised issues which are much broader than promoting women in the workplace. It is about the need to modernise the workplace and make it fit for 21st century expectations and needs.

A new survey from breatheHR found a third of British employees quit their jobs due to bad workplace culture. This is despite the fact that it also showed 60% of SME leaders considered company culture as a ‘nice to have’ in their business.

Company culture is not an add-on. It is the underlying structure upon which everything else is built and ignoring it means a lot of wasted potential, something businesses can ill afford in turbulent times.

Developing a culture that demonstrably and actively values all talent is a low cost, high return strategy.

Diana Parkes is Founder of The Women’s Sat Nav to Success Ltd and Mandy Garner is editor of Workingmums.co.uk.

Image credit: World of vector/Shutterstock

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