As we mark the UK's Equal Pay Day, Atlas Founding Partner Vanessa Pine reflects on her experience of the gender pay gap policy battle in Government that will now shape corporate communications plans for 2017.

I was a reluctant feminist in my 20s. More interested in climate change and foreign policy issues, I didn’t want or need any special measures to compete on a level playing field with my male peers. Why should I be considered a special case because of my gender? As an opinionated woman in politics, when it was occasionally suggested that I consider becoming an MP, I rejected the idea that I’d need an all women short-list to do so (quite aside from having no interest in the idea of standing altogether).  Fast forward ten years and I feel differently now about feminism. Although I still describe myself as an egalitarian because the F word is so easily mis-construed. So why the change of heart?

Perhaps it was the number of my friends who had to leave their jobs, or felt the need to take less high pressure, less exciting roles when they became mothers. Our mothers (and many fathers) fought for us to have equal education and opportunity. They wanted us to make choices for ourselves and for our careers that hadn’t been open to them. We found the reality of those choices was less of a post-feminist utopia, it was more complicated and more entrenched. Expectations of mothers are still different. The cost of childcare and the challenge of balancing work and good parenting still disproportionately falls on my female friends, even those with brilliant boyfriends and husbands. Is that society’s expectation, our own or perhaps something that can be fixed by public policy?

Coming into Government as a Special Adviser in the last few months of the coalition, I expected to spend my time on media relations and preparing for the impending General Election campaign. I didn’t expect to get the chance to shape policy or change any laws. But Government is an odd mix of slow process and sudden opportunity.

One cold afternoon the Minister for Equalities and Consumer Affairs, Jo Swinson and I met in her stuffy parliamentary office, to catch up with her researcher, Corrine, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s Equalities and Education SpAd, Matt Sanders. We were discussing the Small Business Bill, that Jo was helping to steer through Parliament and its somewhat wobbly progress in the House of Lords. It just so happened to be a few weeks before International Women’s Day and we were (cynically) speculating about what the Tories would do to mark the moment. Since they had been so resistant to Lib Dem attempts to go further on the gender pay gap, trigger a review of media sexism or make shared parental leave as effective as it could be, we thought they might struggle. In discussing our own plans we realised we could create a further conundrum for them – with the support of Labour peers we could amend the bill to include the pay gap regulations that they had rejected for so long.

If I’m honest, I doubted our chances of success but thought raising the issue would help highlight the policy differences between the two coalition partners. The impending election required us to define these differences more aggressively; it was not a collegiate move. It wasn’t until Jo put the idea to Nick Clegg later that week and he “took it to quad”, his regular meetings with David Cameron and George Osborne, that I started to feel excited. When Cameron did the political calculation for himself, it was decided that Government would make the amendment. And so, suddenly, we had changed the law, as well as scoring ourselves a few good headlines.

Being part of making that happen is my proudest achievement. No matter how long the Lib Dems remain in the wilderness politically, that change – and hundreds of others like it – will make a difference to the next generation.

Our amendment secured a commitment for Government to act within 12 months. More than a year and a half later, tomorrow marks Equal Pay Day, an annual reminder that we still have a long way to go to close the gender pay gap. As we wrote in the Financial Times (£), we are still waiting for those regulations to materialise. From April 2017 companies with more that 250 employees will have to take a snapshot and prepare to publish the data within the year. But as yet they have no clarity on exactly how they should be doing this. 

We never intended pay gap reporting to be a burden, so small businesses are exempt from the new rules. We also knew then and know now that the pay gap is a crude metric that hides a much more complex picture within each organisation. The difference between the average pay of men and women across a whole organisation is never going to tell the full story.

Given the choice we’d have gone further and sought transparency at each level. But Government is pragmatic and incremental; you do what you can, when you can.

To explain the value of the pay gap regulations, Jo had a favourite anecdote about a supportive company who had taken the step voluntarily. Thinking they were one of the good guys, they were shocked to realise that actually there were some issues they needed to address. And that is the point, it is only if pay gap numbers make uncomfortable reading that we will feel the need to do something about them.

Having returned to the commercial world, I’m now working with clients to help them make sense of these numbers. You can read our gender pay gap briefing here. Although we're still waiting for the precise wording, we also know that the data will be published by the Government on a sector by sector basis - so called "league tables". Are you ready for the questions that your staff, stakeholders and customers will ask about those numbers?

As we help prepare communications plans for 2017 we’re weaving diversity and inclusion efforts into corporate narratives. But – crucially – we’re also working with multi-disciplinary teams from legal, HR, comms and senior management to move those numbers in the right direction. Because that is the story that people will be really interested in. If you want help telling the story behind your gender pay gap numbers, we'd be happy to hear from you. 

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