Addressing the gender pay gap: Moving from disclosure to action

When organisations across the UK published their gender pay gap data for the first-time last year, it was not surprising to see the outliers named and shamed. Companies and industries that reported the largest gender pay disparity were criticised in the press, and the media overall was sceptical of corporations – scrutinising data and the narratives explaining them.

There was limited opportunity to tell a positive story, in fact where these existed (brands like Apple, Salesforce, and Lululemon are a few examples of those who have closed the gender pay gap), they were often drowned out.

As we start to review gender pay gap data again for the next reporting cycle in April, many are likely thinking about how to avoid the spotlight, with the hope that other items on the UK news agenda – namely Brexit – will remain the focus. But, expectations from consumers today demand that as an important social issue, the gender pay gap isn’t brushed under the carpet.

In fact, likely a result of the robust level of media coverage last year’s reporting generated, our Authentic Insights research recently revealed the gender pay gap is now one of the top three issues that UK consumers expect companies to take action on, along with other workplace issues such as income gaps, executive pay, diversity and sexual harassment.

It is the reflection of a broader shift we are seeing in terms of expectations of businesses. Seventy-four percent of consumers expect companies to go beyond mandated regulations and to be actively working to solve societal issues. And a majority of communications professionals believe that it is how they respond to social issues like automation, mental health and gender diversity, will define their company’s purpose in the next five years. There is broad recognition that companies have their work cut out for them on these issues and that it needs to be prioritised to maintain a respected reputation.

So, what does this mean for companies and the 2018 gender pay gap?

  1. Companies need to be prepared to prioritise and discuss social issues, but it can’t be about lip service. When taking a stand on issues like gender parity, the latest research has shown that engaged consumers expect companies to act, change policy and leverage their position to be the change they are advocating for. This is evidenced in the media landscape as well – as coverage indicates journalists are beginning to look beyond what numbers are being reported, to critically examining what action they are taking to redress the gender balance. Put simply, having a nice story doesn’t cut it. Organisations need to develop an actionable plan that will affect change.
  2. Have a credible, robust explanation for why there is a gender pay gap. Companies can’t hide behind numbers because there is a likely risk they’ll be found out. Transparency and commitment is always the best policy, particularly when there is an issue that needs addressing. What’s more, over a third (38%) of consumers said that if a company explains why they have taken a position on an issue that is important to them, they are extremely or very likely to continue to support them, even if they disagree.
  3. Don’t try and simplify it. The gender pay gap is part of a much bigger, complex conversation on gender equality and isn’t going to be solved by one solution. Companies should ensure any strategies to combat gender pay gap takes into account broader issues of diversity and inclusion such as ethnic discrimination, workforce re-entry, career progression, etc., and this may play a larger role in this year’s media reporting.
  4. Share a female point of view. No one wants to hear a businessman explaining issues related to women’s rights and gender equality. Identify senior women or case studies within your business who can help shed light on the issues at hand and speak first-hand about the company’s strategy to reversing the gender pay gap.
  5. Engage employees first. Regardless of how active a company’s external communications strategy is, employees are the most important audience and share the same – if not stronger – expectations than general consumers. It is important to get preparation and internal communication about the gender pay gap right to ensure transparency and continued advocacy from employees. Given the sensitive nature of the communication, it is recommended that employees hear about the gender pay gap directly from their managers with whom they have a closer professional relationship. Companies should take a leadership-led cascade approach, ensuring that all managers feel supported to lead conversations with their direct team on the gender pay gap.
  6. Engage the C-suite: When it comes to who speaks on behalf of their companies with regards to issues, it is the CEO who is the most important to hear from, as well as the most credible. He or she should reflect and embody the values of the company. Full stop. Consumers and employees expect nothing less and will want leaders to respond to how the gender pay gap along with other important social issues, are being addressed.

Although it may be too early for company’s gender pay gap figures to reflect change this year, if we know anything it is that consumer expectations are changing.

Companies need to outline a clear plan for how they will be addressing the gender pay gap and broader social issues. And they will be expected to back it up with action.

Stephanie Bailey, Corporate Communications