The gender pay gap dominated the headlines last week, with results from the reporting exercise showing that almost eight in ten organisations, across the public and private sector, are paying men more than women. Just over 10K companies reported their pay gap by the April 4 deadline, with the data revealing that women are being paid a median hourly rate which is on average 9.7 per cent less than the rate given to their male colleagues. The figures haven’t come as a surprise. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies had already highlighted pay disparity of 18 per cent in the UK – a gap it is predicted will take 60 years to close.

The requirement to publicly state figures has, however, put the spotlight on the much wider issue of gender equality in the workplace. Because of course the pay gap is not just about remuneration.
A whole range of factors have a part to play – the fact that men are more likely to work in higher paid areas like technology, engineering and finance, for example. The fact that in many organisations there are more men than women in senior roles – and the impact that ‘time out’ for maternity leave or caring responsibilities has on female career progression.

In an interview in The Guardian, Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, described the reporting exercise (which will now be an annual requirement) as a ‘game changer’. “It forces employers to look at themselves and understand their organisations and it prompts employees to ask some hard questions,” she said.

With the results now out in the open, HR practitioners will no doubt be on the receiving end of questions from both employees and senior management. So what can practitioners do to help change both practice and perceptions and create a more level playing field for the next generation of women in the workplace?

1. Exploit the data

HR is in a prime position to use the data that has been collected about pay inequality to build a picture of what is really happening in the business. Sophisticated HR software now makes it possible to unearth the story behind any pay disparities that have been revealed. Is the gap bigger in some departments than others? Which job roles show the most disparity? What links can be made between the pay data and the information in the organisation’s succession plan. What is the percentage of women V men in the talent pool, for example? Does your HR system’s training and development module suggest that women are getting the same access to training and development opportunities as their male colleagues? Dig deep into the data and it will help you find out what the real barriers to female progression are and what actions the business needs to take to address them.

2. Get senior leadership support

The government-supported Women’s Business Council has launched a toolkit which aims to give practical advice to CEOS on how they can achieve gender balance in their business (‘Men as Agents of Change’). Among its recommendations are that senior leaders take greater personal responsibility for female progression. It suggests actively ‘sponsoring’ women who have potential to secure senior roles and being a ‘visible’ part of conversations happening around gender balance. HR can do much to support this process and to also make line managers further down the organisation an active part of the process. A recent article in People Management reports that some companies are making promoting equality a core objective for line managers, for example, underlining the message that the company takes the issue seriously and holding them to account for what happens in their teams.

3. Look at flexible working trends

How widespread is flexible working in the business? A recent Economist survey showed that around 45 per cent of women with children at home had cut back on their working hours or moved to less demanding jobs. Despite compelling evidence about the business benefits of offering flexible working – to all employees, not just women – many organisations are still clinging on to conventional 9-5 models that make it difficult for female employees to progress their careers in the way they might like. HR has a role to play in educating line managers about the benefits of embracing flexible working and how it can be used as a tool to help improve performance and retain valuable talent. It’s important to recognise that managers often also need practical help with designing jobs to accommodate flexibility and advice on how to manage the practicalities on the ground.

4. Review maternity policies

Managing maternity leave well is key to keeping hold of valuable female talent and making sure that women’s careers don’t stall unnecessarily. Organisations need to get creative about the ways they keep in touch with women while they’re away and with the measures they put in place to ensure a successful return. A key part of this is making sure line managers feel comfortable about managing maternity leave and re-integrating employees when they come back. According to a recent article in People Management, one organisation has introduced a ‘baby app’ that helps staff on maternity or parental leave keep tabs on what’s happening in the business and see any vacancies that may arise while they’re away.

5. Shine the spotlight on succession

Paying attention to the talent pipeline – from the earliest stage – is key to accelerating female progression. HR practitioners need to take a close look at how well women are represented on the succession plan – and to consider taking positive action to redress the situation if they are not. Are women being given equal access to leadership training for example? Are female employees ruling themselves out of applying for roles because they can’t meet all of the criteria (research has shown that if women cannot meet just one requirement on a job spec, they are unlikely to apply for the role, whereas men will apply if they meet only a few of the conditions). Could mentoring or coaching be used to help women overcome the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many suffer from and build confidence? Lack of appropriate role models can also be a barrier to women putting themselves forward. Internal networking and internal communications are two of the tools that HR can use to help reinforce the message that the business takes gender equality seriously.

Cezanne HR’s Analytics function allows you to track the gender distribution of your company’s talent pool in your succession plan, so you can identify whether female employees are likely to be underrepresented in the future of your organisation.