Time to build some bridges

It’s hard to ignore really, when the majority of newspapers and broadcasts highlight today’s Institute of Fiscal Studies report showing that on average, women earn 18% less than men. Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party was on twitter this morning pleading with journalists keen to show ‘balance’ in their reporting not to field interviews with experts arguing that women choose to “put motherhood ahead of career” and that therefore it’s our own fault that we are paid less.  She’s right. Should we all stop having children altogether? Is that the only answer to addressing this issue?

As it happens, fewer women are having children. The birthrate in Europe is continuing to fall, with the only region bucking that trend being Scandinavia where – you’ve guessed it – there’s generous parental leave, subsidised childcare and a real focus on gender equality.  And, as our population continues to age, there’s a demographic timebomb just around the corner – the proportion of people aged 85+ in the UK is expected to rise sharply over the next 50 years.

But I digress. When it comes to narrowing the gender gap in the workplace, we know what the problem is. The pay gap widens once women return to work after having children (by the time your child is 12 years old, your hourly pay could lag behind that of men by as much as 33%), and it’s not just about parity of salary, it’s about parity of opportunity. Mark Crail, content director at XpertHR was quoted in the Guardian as saying “the gender pay gap is not primarily about men and women being paid differently for doing the same job. It’s much more about men being present in greater numbers than women the higher up the organisation you go. Our research shows that this gap begins to open up at relatively junior levels and widens – primarily because men are more likely to be promoted”.

Let’s be honest, the gap sometimes happens because of experience-lag. A man and a woman start work at the same company on the same day. Two years later she takes maternity leave and he doesn’t. When she returns he’s got three years’ experience and she’s got two – simple maths. But is it beyond us to create upskilling programmes that will help women returning from maternity leave to catch up?  If men are more confident when it comes to asking for a payrise or a promotion (which many studies have shown they are), it’s then a double-whammy for a woman returning to work. A bit less experience, someone who’s less skilled at asking for what they feel they deserve and bingo, the gap starts to widen.

It’s not all about having children and taking time out anyway, it’s about finding ways to change the way that we work so that we can accommodate greater flexibility for everyone. In the agency world, it’s not uncommon for clients to insist that they only want one point of contact. And it’s usually clients holding the biggest budgets (and therefore the largest agency teams) asking for the single point of contact.

I do get it, the fact that having lots of people asking you for information and to make decisions can be incredibly distracting when you’re busy enough as it is, but what happens within the agency is that staffing decisions get made sometimes on the basis of whether or not someone can be that 5-day a week client contact.   So, I have a fantastic client handler who’s ideal for the role, just the right experience and likely to be a good match from a chemistry point of view, but she’s working three days a week – what do I do?

Well, sometimes you can push back but often you can’t, not if you want to keep the business and keep the client happy.  And so another gap starts to open up for a woman who is bright, talented, hardworking and someone with a real future in the industry, even though a bit of flexibility from the client would mean I could pair her with someone and together they would be an even better answer for the client’s requirements.

As leaders we need to be constantly alert to these issues and modify our approach to address them. Equality isn’t something that just happens because of legislation, it’s something that happens when we think creatively about how to coach, enable, push and empower talented individuals to reach their full potential. We can’t always close the gap completely, however much we want to, but we must work harder to find ways to bridge it.

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