Looking the elephant in the eye

There’s an elephant in the room, so what are you going to do about it? Do you address the issue head on, or do you skirt it because you’re afraid of conflict? Do you do your best to stop people from talking about it, or do you find a way to have an open discussion? How can you find a way to agree to disagree when tempers are running high?

Don’t know what I’m talking about? I bet you do. In the space of a few short months, two popular votes that didn’t go the way that they were predicted to have had a seismic effect on relationships between friends, within families and in the workplace. I am of course talking about the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election, both of which polarised opinions, sending shockwaves through our respective nations.

The problem is, regardless of which way you voted (or indeed would have voted had you been given the opportunity), we all have to live with each other after the votes have been counted, but that’s easier said than done when people’s emotions are so actively engaged.  I think it’s fair to say that both the referendum and the election campaigns were hard-fought, highly emotionally charged and many untruths were shared online and offline.

People have developed passionately partisan views, and it has sometimes felt (certainly in the UK) that those who disagree with the outcome of the vote are being pushed to accede without protest or further debate. For me, the truth at the heart of any democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, and that must mean the freedom to express one’s opinion whilst being open to constructive challenge.

As it happens, I think that’s at the heart of great teamwork and great businesses too, because people don’t work well in teams unless they feel listened to and that their views matter.  Teams don’t work well if they’re at each others’ throats either, and as leaders we need to help our people find new ways to work together after these difficult months. I don’t think anyone’s under the illusion that all of a sudden we can wave a wand and we’ll be skipping along hand in hand as though nothing’s happened, but we do have a responsibility to our colleagues to address the elephant in the room.

The big question is how? Well, for starters it’s probably not a good idea to stifle debate or close down discussion of the topic, that way it goes underground and can become even more divisive. I’m not suggesting you hold forums to debate which way the vote(s) went and whether people agree with it or not, more that you set the tone for any discussion. Personal abuse is not acceptable in any environment, and if that’s happening then it needs to be addressed regardless of the views being expressed.

Leading by example is also critically important in these difficult times, and that means showing through our own behaviour that outdated attitudes are just that – outdated. We must actively address any instances of sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, not simply for the sake of the individuals concerned, but also because of the wider impact it has on the world around us, including our workplace.

I realise that for many this is preaching to the converted, but in these troubled times we need to speak up rather than staying silent. Listen to what people say, acknowledge their point of view, but then stand up for what’s right, because if we keep ignoring that elephant it’ll never leave.

Happy Equal Pay Day?

Today is Equal Pay Day in the UK. What does that mean? It’s not just another opportunity to talk about the gender pay gap, 10 November 2016 marks the day from which women in full time jobs will in effect be working for free until the end of the year. Last year’s Equal Pay Day was 9 November, so we’ve made pretty much zero progress over the last twelve months in reducing a pay gap between men and women of almost 14% (13.9% to be exact).

What’s shocking about this is that it’s been 46 years since the Equal Pay Act enshrined in law the rights of women to be paid the same as men if they were doing the same job.  46 years! It’s shocking that today in 2016 there is still this huge disparity in the way that women are valued in the workplace as opposed to men.

Now, here’s a question for you. Do you think Theresa May is paid less than David Cameron was for the job of Prime Minister?  Had Hillary Clinton made it to the White House, would she have been paid less than President Obama? Seems unthinkable, doesn’t it. The thing is, these are high profile roles where salary is a matter of public record, and it’s simply not a level playing field for many women working across a broad spectrum of industries.

Only a month ago, supermarket giant ASDA found itself braced for a class action suit, when an employment tribunal found in favour of 7,000 shop workers who complained that they were being paid between £1-£3 less than staff at distribution centres (most of whom are men). The company had tried to argue that because shops and distribution centres were in different locations, separate pay arrangements were justified. The tribunal found that ASDA could have made sure that there was equal pay between men and women if they wanted to, but chose not to, according to law firm Leigh Day, which represented the women. And they’re not alone – a similar action is being brought against Sainsbury’s on behalf of 400 workers in a similar situation.

Over the years I have read many articles and manifestos that place the blame for the pay gap on demographics and cultural issues, claiming that women choose lower stress lower pay roles, or that they prefer to be family carers, quite aside from any workplace discrimination. The truth is that there are a combination of factors which influence the gender pay gap, many of which need to be tackled long before girls reach the workplace.

The Women’s Equality Party (WE) is calling for a new approach to widen the conversation, with a new three part approach to tackle inequality:

First, to address workplace discrimination WE is calling for companies to publish pay data broken down by gender, ethnicity and disability as well as by pay, employment status and working hours, including retention rates during and after parental leave.

Secondly, WE believes that remodelling the UK education system to ensure all girls get an equal education – and to do this it asks that schools conduct a gender audit of the curriculum to ensure they promote role models challenging gender stereotypes, as well as offering quality, independent careers guidance that encourages girls to do science and boys to think creatively.

Finally, WE is calling for further investment in childcare to enable more women to return to the workplace without being penalised financially for doing so, and has made concrete proposals for how this could be funded. It also wants to encourage men to share in parental leave by breaking down both financial and cultural barriers, with fathers receiving non-transferable 6 weeks of parental leave at 90 percent of pay.

At the current rate of progress, it will take until 2069 to close the gender pay gap, and longer if you are a black or ethnic minority woman, or indeed an older woman. We can’t wait that long. If you are in a leadership role, man or woman, make time to examine and address this issue within your workforce – you might be surprised what you find. And of course, if you’re working in an organisation that employs more than 250 people it will shortly be a matter of public record anyway, as you will have to publish details of pay gap data in 2018.   We cannot take progress for granted, it is our collective responsibility to make sure our workplaces represent the very best practice, for both men and women.