I’m sitting in a client meeting feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Their reputation is at risk. The Chief Executive and Head of Marketing are having a difficult conversation about how to manage an issue and it’s, partially, my fault. Naturally I apologise, but inside I’m cheering because this is a discussion they need to be having.

They are talking about publishing their gender pay gap numbers and they are not happy about the picture those numbers paint. They already worry their staff will be pissed off, and they suspect it won’t go down well with customers, shareholders or the wider world either.

The inequality between the sexes is even evident here. The woman resignedly knows their pay gap numbers make sense whilst the man is outraged and thinks it must have been miscalculated somehow. This is a reaction I’ve seen before. Many a male boss thinks of himself as an egalitarian, and of his company as an equal opportunities employer. He feels frustrated by a crude metric that challenges that feeling. How can this be? Are we sure? Who’s included? What’s the difference between the mean and the median? Women are much less shocked – in public at least.

Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian has written about the anger that some women feel about their own employers pay gaps – but none of them would go on the record to say so publicly. Comms and HR professionals sharing their stories at PR Week’s Gender Pay Gap reporting breakfast yesterday agreed their internal audiences were the top priority. With just two days to go until the public sector deadline of 31st March, and two working days until the private sector deadline 4th April, approximately half of all companies who should be publishing on the Government Portal seem to have left their homework to the last minute. But the nervous delay is understandable.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but they do.

Remember the huge outcry at the BBC’s 9.3% pay gap and the row about unequal pay for on-air talent that made front pages and the top of news bulletins? We’re pretty sure you saw that and we’re pretty sure some Comms Directors are having nightmares about them being next. Yet you might have blinked and missed the publication of median pay gaps at The Sun (19.6%), Express Newspapers (19%), the Financial Times (19.4%), The Telegraph (23.4%), Channel 4 (24.2%) and Economist (29.5%) which compare unfavourably with the national average (18.4%). ITN (18.2%), Trinity Mirror (15%), Scottish Daily Record (15.5%), The Times (12.7%) and The Guardian (12.1%) and Channel 5 (2.1%) do marginally better, whilst the Press Association (0.5%) looks impressively progressive. All eyes now on SKY and the Daily Mail who seem to have followed others advice about stalling to be part of the bank holiday herd. 

Remember too the profile given to stories criticising legal and accountancy firms who, following the rules, published numbers that excluding highly paid Partners? Having the luxury of writing their own editorials has allowed media companies to do something others aren’t able to get away with – cutting the data to shape their narrative. The BBC separated the on-air talent (6.8%) from the off air team (12.6%), The Guardian split editorial (8.8%) and non-editorial (18.2%) teams – which might provide a more nuance explanation of the structural inequality or it might just serve to muddy the waters. When it comes to lies, damn lies and statistics, News UK group quoted more flattering means not medians (15.2% vs 22%) throughout their report and Channel 5 got great headlines for briefing fellow press that it has a negative mean pay gap (-2.85%) which means it pays women more despite the median telling the opposite story. 

Mean, Median, so what? Well the Office of National Statistics uses medians because it eliminates big numbers at either end and so provides a better overall reflection of average pay. But means are used internationally for comparisons. Both are valid, but cherry picking your best numbers is a luxury some parts of the media have not afforded to others. 

So, who can you turn to for comms advice on landing your numbers?

Shockingly this week, one of the world’s largest PR companies, Edelman published their 10% gap alongside a statement that it was “unlikely to achieve absolute gender balance” because of the composition of its team. That’s the narrative equivalent of shrugging and saying there’s a gender pay gap because there’s a gap. Don’t take our word for it, you can read their report in full here. Either they didn’t consider the implications of this message and the coverage it would generate, which doesn’t say much for their strategic comms abilities, or their commitment to “strive for 50:50 gender parity in our most senior roles” isn’t genuine. Neither interpretation reflects positively on their reputation management credentials. 

With a team of just ten, Atlas Partners employs far fewer than 250 people so doesn’t have to publish a gender pay gap, but we have crunched the numbers anyway and ours is -16% (i.e. we pay our women more). We have more senior women and junior men. A better benchmark would be leading PR agencies Golin London – who’s gender pay gap is also negative (-4.62% median) and WPP owned Hill & Knowlton which reports a 3.9% median gap. These figures show a pay gap in PR is not inevitable and that Edelman needs to aim higher if it wants to attract and retain a diverse and talented team. Or to help its clients with their own gender pay gap narratives.

We have been closely following the media and political interest in this issue over the last two years and working with several clients on their gender pay gap narratives and internal comms. So what have we learned?

  1. Don’t be defensive. As you might expect from a company who were there when the regulations were first passed, we think the obligation to release pay gap figures can be treated not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. In year one of the reporting regime, points are given for honesty. No matter how bad the numbers, some are still getting good headlines for taking the problem seriously and starting the conversation. Even in the worst affected sectors there is hope of improvement. CEO of Virgin Money and leader of the Women in Finance Charter, Jayne Anne Gadhia told the Financial Times “I believe that we will look back on the start of gender pay gap reporting as a watershed moment.” Tone and openness are key. Trying to defend the indefensible or pretending that you’ve got all the answers is not going to fly.
  2. Actions speak louder than words. The pay gap numbers are a really crude metric and there’s quite a lot we still don’t know about barriers to progression generally. Even the Office of National Statistics says that 60% of the gap is not explained by the most likely suspects, age, tenure and occupation choice. That makes research the first step in developing an action plan to address the gap in your business. Most of our clients who have already been through the process found they needed to get more data, or start collecting extra data, to back up their messages and test their assumptions about where the barriers to progression are. Next you need to prioritise some short term and longer-term actions that you will focus on. There are lots of small things that will, incrementally, help. Pinning pay and reward to job performance and ensuring decisions are justifiable will help rule out unconscious biases. On the recruitment side you can anonymise job applications, have gender diverse shortlists, target returnee parents, use non-traditional channels for job ads, skills based testing and structured scoring in interviews. You can make roles flexible, provide sponsoring, mentoring and champion dads taking shared parental leave. The Government Equalities Office provides more ideas here.
  3. Start with your staff. Conflating equal pay and the gender pay gap is common and probably your biggest risk. So narratives, townhalls, focus groups and individual managers all need to address that. You need to arm managers with the confidence and Q&As to explain the difference and explain your results. But you also want to be encouraging staff to talk to you about the gender pay gap – because their experience may show something that you can’t monitor from the boardroom. For example… Do maternity returners find presenteeism/ the office hours culture career limiting? Do male dominated sales teams recruit in their own image or promote a testosterone filled culture that puts off women applicants? Do managers unconsciously reward staff who spend time, out of hours, in the pub or on the golf course, more than those who go home - because they know them and like them better? 
  4. Chase progress not numbers. Big aspirational targets can help but there is no quick fix and no silver bullet. In theory you can close your gap by hiring lots of cheap young men or outsourcing your cleaning staff to rid the payroll of low paid women. But neither of these addresses the challenge of getting more women to progress into more senior, highly paid roles. Comms and HR teams need to be closely aligned and work together to challenge the wider business on action and messaging around the gender pay gap now and in the future. Corporate reputation will never be protected if this becomes a siloed PR project. The gender pay gap is driven by unhelpfully internalised gender stereotypes that we all carry, and we alone can’t change those. But the conversations Comms Directors can trigger at board level and beyond will bring greater understanding and transparency, which are the first steps in the right direction.

Based on the current rate the gender pay gap isn’t expected to close until 2070, but reporting this year and in years to come may act as a catalyst to accelerate that change.

If this all leaves you feeling a little powerless and depressed, we highly recommend the Equaliser campaign to brighten your bank holiday weekend playlists. Thanks to a brilliant corporate partnership between Smirnoff and Spotify you can you can find out how many male and female artists you are listening to and redress the balance with some new tunes.

Happy Easter!