When I talk to my dad about the gender pay gap, this is his go-to phrase. Falsely attributed to Disraeli, popularised by Mark Twain, the expression was originally coined by radical liberal Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke in 1891, or possibly not.

According to last week’s second annual publication deadline, 78% of firms pay men more than women. And yet my dad will insist there is no such thing as the gender pay gap. It is a statistical creation, a false metric that allows women to feel hard done by. He will go on to argue that the only form of discrimination is income inequality and, while that has been dramatically widening (he worries) it does not affect women more than men.

My dad is rarely wrong. But on this one he is suffering from a particularly acute case of white male unthinking, deriving his opinion from his own perception (a world where his wife and daughter are treated and valued entirely equally, and his mother and grandmother called all the shots). He assumes his experience is a truth that should be universally acknowledged.

When I commented on Helena Morrissey’s excellent post about the GPG on LinkedIn the response was less polite than the debates my dad and I have… John K from San Diego asked “what about the societal expectation that men should work hard and provide for their families, die younger, perform the dangerous jobs? Shove it sweetheart, we ain’t buying your misandrist crap any more. You and your screeching fellow man hating harpies have ruined the narrative.” Which is something of a surprise to read on a professional networking site. Although it turns out that John is not alone, depressingly nearly half (46%) of American men believe that the gender pay gap is made up for political purposes.

Trolling aside, just because it is a crude metric, doesn’t mean it cannot tell us something meaningful and powerful. What it does not tell us is that women are paid less than their peers. Nor does it tell us that “women should just be more confident and ask for a pay rise” (again my dad). My mum once met my old boss, whereupon he launched into a volley of praise for my performance at work. “Don’t clap, throw money” was her zinging response. She and I, and in fact women in general, don’t have a problem asking for more money. The research shows we are simply less likely to get a positive response to that ask.

Of the 9,961 companies which had filed by 5pm on 4 April, 44% had improved or narrowed their pay gap. On the flipside, 40% of reporting firms saw a growing or widening pay gap. This is not surprising considering that the data being reported is already a year old, so the plans published last year could not possibly have come into effect for this year’s data. Some commentators have suggested those with “good news” to tell should be scrutinised for potentially gaming the system. Whereas those whose gaps have got wider might be investing in the future by hiring lots of young, lower paid women, who will eventually make their way through the ranks.


The great Brexit distraction

So now that we have had a chance to review the numbers published last week, what have we learned?

Last year, we predicted that worsening numbers would drive the biggest headlines ahead of the second anniversary. This proved to be the case for HSBC, KPMG and EasyJet, but the biggest difference was actually in the volume of coverage. If like us you have been trying to engage journalists in any story at all over recent months, or simply regularly consume the news, you will know why: Brexit is dominating the agenda to the exclusion of all else.

In March 2018, 7,375 UK stories ran with “Pay Gap” in their title, in March 2019 there were just 1,280, an 80% reduction in media coverage. There was more of a focus on specific sectors, with health, universities and financial services driving the biggest stories.

The outraged scrutiny of the BBC’s gender pay gap looks somewhat hypocritical when you compare their numbers to the rest of the media industry.

The outraged scrutiny of the BBC’s gender pay gap looks somewhat hypocritical when you compare their numbers to the rest of the media industry.

Media companies themselves also had to report on their gender pay gaps, but funnily enough those didn’t drive too many headlines. Two years in a row the BBC actually had the second smallest gender pay gap in the sector, not that you’d know it.

The most improved award goes to the Daily Express who narrowed their median gap from 19 to 14.6 per cent. Hats off to Press Association for demonstrating that a pay gap in the media is not inevitable.


Call in the spin doctors?

If transparency leads to bad headlines, who do you call? As we highlighted last year, not all spin doctors are equal when it comes to equality. Very few PR consultancies are required to publish their gap, only 4% of PRCA member firms are large enough that they fall under the regulations. However, the last PRCA Census showed that between 2016 and 2018, the gender pay gap actually increased in the PR industry, growing from 17.8% to 21%. So what credentials can you look for in an advisor?

Well, walking the walk is a start. And the picture here is as murky as the national one. FTI Consulting, reported the largest pay gap, at 32.2 per cent median. But put this down to “providing services beyond PR that are historically male-dominated”. Edelman’s gap last year was 10% and their rhetoric was frankly rubbish, so it’s no surprise so see their gap widen to 13.4%, worse still their bonus pay gap has gone up from 44% to 73%.

As with media, a pay gap in PR is not inevitable. We are a small firm of just 12 so our numbers are easily skewed by individuals, but our median pay gap is 24% in favour of women, up from 5.6% last year. The median gender pay gap at Golin has risen to 7.7 per cent in favour of women, up from 4.6 per cent last year. The same is true for Hill and Knowlton, in 2018 they reported a 3.9% median gap in favour of men, this year that has switched to a 2.36% gap in favour of women.


Reputation vs productivity

So spin doctors may or may not be able to help you with a reputation challenge from the gender pay gap. But what is sad is that this is definitely the box it seems to fall into in the minds of management. We should be investing in diversity to make our businesses more productive – not simply to look equal.  As Harvard Business Review explains diverse teams are more likely to re-examine facts and remain objective. They encourage greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant, thereby reducing risk. Hiring people who do not look, talk, or think like you, may feel less comfortable but it means you avoid the costly pitfalls of conformity, which discourages innovation. Time and again studies find that equality is good for business performance, but we still don’t act like we believe those findings.


No plan, no action?

Many firms did not publish a plan of action alongside their numbers, which means we shouldn’t expect to see meaningful progress any time soon. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - which enforces the gender pay gap rules - said that forcing companies to report their pay gaps was not enough to eliminate pay disparities.

On a more personal level, this isn’t a ‘girls job’ to fix, and it is illusory to think that the argument should only be concerned with women’s choice over their lifestyles. As men become more aware of the problem, having to collect and address the stark facts, they too can help as powerful agents for change.

Part of the future of Pay Gap reporting needs to be concerned with the workplace stereotypes that remain frustratingly persistent. As I wrote last week, some of this is about a parenting penalty at work. But it starts even before childcare becomes an issue, according to the Government’s graduate earnings survey, men earn more than women at all stages in the decade after graduation, with male earnings 8% higher after just one year, 15% after five years and 31% higher at 10 years after graduation.

The same unhelpful gender stereotypes that teach girls to be polite and helpful, not pushy or bossy, also teach boys not to cry. These attitudes and behaviours should not be overlooked when searching for solutions, meaning a focus on mental health support at work and shared parental leave for male managers are just as important as affordable childcare and negotiation skills for women in the executive pipeline.

If you need help planning for gender pay gap 2020 – we’d love to hear from you.