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We need to address bias, not women’s choices

By March 8, 2022August 17th, 2022Read, Personnel Today magazine
Personnel Today

READ As organisations mark International Women’s Day, they need to challenge assumptions that women make choices that hinder their careers, and focus on systemic bias instead.

Many people believe that the gender pay gap is down to the choices women make, about where they choose to work (in low paid sectors) and what they choose to do when they have children (reduce their hours or take a career break).

They say the fact that there is no gender pay gap for women in their 20s is evidence that what we are looking at is something natural and possibly even quite benign. And, they add, they obviously believe in equal pay, but that’s a different issue.

The problem with this viewpoint is that the government and the Office for National Statistics agrees that, once you have taken occupational segregation and part-time hours in to account, two thirds – two thirds! – of the gender pay gap still cannot be adequately explained.

The most likely explanation is bias, coming in several forms:

Bias in pay and promotion systems that are not transparent

There can be many factors within pay systems that lead to inequalities. For example, right from the start, previous salary may influence the opening offer to a new hire, rather than the skills and experience required for the role and its responsibilities. The Fawcett Society’s “End salary history” campaign aims to end this recruitment practice, which makes it harder for women to increase their salary by moving jobs.

Equal pay for work or equal value is required by law, but in practice, similar jobs may have different titles, and different pay grades. In recent years, all of the ‘big four’ retailers have been challenged on this, with claims brought on behalf of staff in the stores (who tend to be women) that they should be paid the same as staff in the warehouses and distribution centres (who tend to be men).

In roles where much of the remuneration package is made up by an annual bonus, the gender bonus gap is huge, often dwarfing the gender pay gap. One professional services firm reports a mean gender bonus gap of over 51%.

While in hourly paid roles, women with care responsibilities may be restricted by the hours they work from having access to higher paid overtime.

Bias that results from networking that excludes those with care responsibilities, who cannot linger at work

This is the unspoken flipside of the laser focus and tight use of time that is often the hallmark of the flexibly working mother. Employers benefit from highly productive staff who work smartly, and get more done in the time available to them. But those workers – often men – who are not on a promise to get home on time, benefit in their turn from being able to hang out, wind down, exchange ideas and updates informally. It may not be fair, but it’s entirely understandable if this results in bias in the way opportunities become available.

Work allocation that favours those who are on the spot and visible

This has been recognised as a bias for years, for example in a study of the legal sector that I led in 2008, which called as a result for fairer work allocation: for team leaders, essentially, not to be lazy but to look beyond the person at the nearest desk and consider whose skills best suited the client’s needs. Today, there is understandable concern being raised in this respect around hybrid working, the fear being that, given the freedom to do so, women are more likely than men to choose to work more frequently from home. And that being more frequently out of sight will indeed mean being more frequently out of mind, with consequent career detriment.

Until we remove bias from how people are promoted and progress at work, we shan’t be able to tackle the bias that we can see – when women choose “family friendly” industry sectors (retail, care, teaching) or young women make family friendly choices because they look ahead, for example by choosing general practice over surgery. Or when women “choose”, to work part time or to take a career break, because their male partner is already earning more, so it just makes sense to do so.

The result is self-perpetuating disadvantage, that will be all the more keenly felt by the current generation of twenty-something women who experience no gender pay gap – until they become mothers. As discussion about gender equality rightly comes to the fore around International Women’s Day we should be talking about this more.

Published in Personnel Today 8th March 2022