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Tackling the gender pay gap with flexible working

April 2019 data suggests the gender pay gap is barely budging; in some cases, it's going backwards. And while flexible working is a big part of the solution, talking about it isn’t enough. Here’s our advice on turning plans into action.

The gender pay gap is a complex issue – and closing it is a complex process. So we weren’t at all surprised that, according to the April 2019 figures, only 48% reported that their gap had narrowed (though we were hugely disappointed to see the gap widening in 44% of cases).

The fact is, the roots of the gender pay gap lie in age-old structures and systems that are still the norm in many workplaces, and in many families. And overturning them won’t happen overnight. So, should employers just shrug their shoulders, move on to something else and assume that things will get better over time? Our answer, unsurprisingly, is no.

Employers need to take action on flexible working, right now

As we said last year, of the four underlying reasons behind the gender pay gap, three can be tackled by offering well-designed part-time and flexible roles to all, at all levels. It’s not just our view – the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee have stated that “Flexible working for all lies at the heart of addressing the gender pay gap.” But – and this is a big but – it’s going to take more than talk.

It’s noticeable that many of the reports published to date refer to flexible working as part of their gap-closing solution. Examples of the vague promises sprinkled through these reports are: “Improve flexible working for men and women” or “Support gender diversity through flexible working” or “Continue to promote the benefits of flexible working”. Hmmmmm.

We’d like to politely suggest that this kind of talk won’t cut it. It’s great to see part-time and flexible working being included in employers’ plans, but if we want to see substantial change in, say, five years’ time, they need to be converted into action, right now. And here are our suggestions for how to do it.

Reason 1: There are more men in senior roles than women

Causes: Due to a lack of flexible senior roles, many women who need flexibility in order to work are denied the opportunity to progress. They can’t move up in their organisation, because there’s nowhere to go. And they can’t find a flexible promotion elsewhere, because only 15% of roles are advertised as being open to flexibility.

Solution: Design flexibility into your senior positions. That doesn’t have to mean making them all part-time; job sharing, compressed hours and working from home are all options that can be attractive to women who need flexibility. If you’re not sure how to approach job design, talk to us. Then make sure you are upfront when you’re hiring about what flexibility you can offer.

Reason 2: Childcare responsibilities fall more heavily on women

Causes: As we noted in our previous article on this topic, there are societal issues at play when it comes to part-time work and childcare (or indeed, any type of caring responsibilities).

Research has shown that, today, almost as many men as women want to work flexibly, and over half of younger fathers have said they would take a pay cut to work less and spend more time with their family.  But fathers are twice as likely as mothers to report the fear that working flexibly will have a negative impact on their career. And if they do ask to work flexibly, their requests are turned down at almost twice the rate that mothers’ are.

Solution: It’s a big ask, certainly, but employers who take their gender pay gap seriously need to overcome these cultural biases. Instead of asking women to work like men, how about empowering men to work like women?

So start by making sure that the part-time and flexible roles you offer are as attractive to career-driven men as they are to their female counterparts. Again, the role of job design is critical, as being asked to squeeze a full working week into fewer days for less pay isn’t going to appeal to anyone, whatever their gender.

Reason 3: Women choose to work in lower-paid roles and sectors

Causes: Again, as we have noted, many of the most poorly paid occupations are those requiring characteristics traditionally regarded as ‘feminine’, such as people or caring skills.

It’s beyond the remit of this article to discuss why these skills are so undervalued compared to more traditionally ‘masculine’ ones. But that aside, there is a suggestion that some women choose these roles and occupations because the flexibility they need doesn’t exist in more male-dominated environments. And that certainly can be tackled.

Solution: If your organisation is in a traditionally male sector, such as IT, tech or construction, there will be wider cultural challenges to address. But a very practical measure will be to introduce or improve flexible working practices, at all levels.

In the short term this will help you find and keep more women. And over time, it will lead to a more balanced workforce, able to challenge the prevailing culture from within. Once again, this means thinking carefully about how the roles are designed, and making sure they suit the needs of your sector, so that the women you recruit will stay, and rise through the ranks.

We’re here to support you in closing your gap

So that’s what you need to do. And the good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. The Timewise team are acknowledged experts in designing and delivering truly flexible roles, across all sectors, including challenging ones which require particularly innovative solutions.

We can help you with your flexible diagnosis, such as understanding where you sit on the flexible working spectrum. We can provide training and consultancy to support the development of your flexible working strategy. And we can work with you to create, deliver and roll out flexible working programmes or pilots (as we’re currently doing in sectors and with clients as wide ranging as Now Teach, Diageo, the NHS and the London Stock Exchange).

None of these will lead to immediate leaps forward; it’s about building a culture and a structure in which change can happen over time. But by closing the gap between rhetoric and reality, and making your actions speak louder than your words, the future of your gender pay gap reporting will look a whole lot brighter.

Published April 2019

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