For many, the inauguration of President Trump put a downer on the start of the year – despite its ‘supposedly’ low number of attendees. It fuelled 100,000 men and women to go on the women’s march in London, all in the name of gender equality. But what were these people marching for? Has there been a shift in consumer opinion that guardians of corporate reputation need to heed or was it just an isolated outburst?

 

Not equal, sorry

One woman argued on Facebook that she did not feel she was a “second class citizen” because of her gender and therefore did not see the need for the march. Her initial post triggered a much wider social media conversation when a blogger shared a lengthy response explaining, though she may feel otherwise, she was in fact “not equal, sorry”. It eloquently highlights that, had it not been for the women and men of the past marching, women would not have the “equality” they do today. Good Morning Britain presenter, Suzanna Reid and Women’s Equality Party leader, Sophie Walker, seized the opportunity to debate the finer points of protest etiquette with Piers Morgan, who seemed set upon missing the wood for the trees.

 

What corporates are saying

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, those watching the Super Bowl last month may have seen Audi’s advert, in which the company publicly championed pay eqality during one of the US’s top marketing calendar moments. Beyond the watching global audience, the spot got more than 12 million views on YouTube, but reactions were mixed. A quarter of the comments were negative, only 13% were positive. Critics tended to fall into one of two camps, they “disliked the ad because they believed it was pure political propaganda,” or found it to be “disingenuous coming from a brand that has never taken a stance on the topic in the past,” according to social media research firm Networked Insights. This highlights the challenge for brands who do decide to put themselves at the forefront of communications on diversity and inclusion. In our view, they failed to put their advert into context: missing an opportunity to showcase their own efforts to improve corporate culture, or address the fact that their US board is visibly pale, male and stale. But at least they get points for trying. 

One UK company that may need to reconsider its approach to the same issue is Tesco. This month, John Allen, the Chairman of Tesco, warned of a newly endangered species: “white men on boards”. His misguided joke totally overshadowed his attempts at a conference to profile its diversity and inclusion efforts. Allen’s comments came across, not as words of encouragement, but as seriously out of touch. His speech generated widespread backlash in media and online. Many pointed out that while men “are going to have to work twice as hard”, women have been doing so for years. Despite having invested in diversity, Tesco’s presentation let down their efforts and have left them on the back foot. 

It is possible to make good news out of unflattering gender equality numbers however.  In December, EasyJet made a virtue out of necessity, by announcing their intention to recruit more women pilots in order to achieve greater diversity. Despite only 3% of pilots being women and their target being relatively modest – recruiting just 50 women a year – the coverage on BBC, Sky, ITV, Guardian and Huffington Post was overwhelmingly positive. They used the challenging industry context to their advantage and combined a headline statistic with plenty of evidence that their internal efforts were beginning to bear fruit.

 

New rules that will affect UK employers

Just seven of the FTSE 100 companies are fronted by women, and 61% of the UK’s highest paid positions are occupied by men, something the Government is working to address through the introduction of new gender pay gap regulations, as well as its women on boards initiatives. The pay gap regulations will come into effect next week and 8,000 companies will have to make public their organisations pay gap by April 2018. When we last wrote about this in November, the details were a little lacking, but since then GEO and Acas have published joint guidance. We also recommend the CIPD and CBI publications for those seeking more detailed compliance advice.   

Though companies will face serious reputation consequences if they fail to meet the guidelines, only 70% of men surveyed in management positions argued they are actively championing gender balance. While this figure seems high at first glance, it means 30% of decision makers are not ‘actively’ trying to combat the issue of gender pay disparity. The UK pay gap stands at 18.1%, so just under a fifth of large UK businesses are walking along a reputation tightrope. All companies will be pitted against their competitors and transparency will make the recruitment and retention of great women that bit more challenging for those who aren't taking it seriously yet. Bosses need to make sure they’re ahead of the curve to come out on the right side of the argument and the media coverage this time next year.

Atlas has teamed up with former Government Minister, Jo Swinson, to help companies prepare and make the most of their reputation on gender equality. Audi’s advert may have been a bold move, in a cynical and turbulent landscape, but it was one to take note of.  

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