By Tamsin Rutter

27 Mar 2018

As the Equality and Human Rights Commission marks its 10th anniversary, it is running a series of events to ask: how fair is Britain? Tamsin Rutter reports on a round table bringing together people from different backgrounds and sectors to discuss the experience of women in the workplace. Photography by Paul Heartfield

Back row (l-r): Samiah Javed; Gerri Clement; Sharon Murray; Mark Freed; Frances Wood; Rebecca Hilsenrath; Jana Javornik; Denise Wilson; Loraine Martins; Julie Iles
Front row (l-r): Neema Choudry; Louise Warde Hunter; Rachael Docking; Carolyn Hayley: Catherine de Gannes

The myth of meritocracy is a persistent one, but many people question whether modern Britain really does reward merit and skill fairly. As the woman who led the government-commissioned review into increasing the number of senior women in FTSE companies put it: “What meritocracy would consistently produce senior white men to get the big jobs?”

Denise Wilson, chief executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review, was one of a group of experts in workplace diversity and inclusion recently gathered by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Civil Service World and our sister publication The House to discuss what’s holding women back. With a national pay gap of 18%, a 2018 EHRC study revealing 36% of employers believe it reasonable to ask female job candidates about their childbearing plans, and a spiralling global sexual harassment scandal that spans almost every sector, the consensus was that women in the workplace are still getting a raw deal.

Recent legislation requiring employers with over 250 staff to publish their gender pay gaps was a rich source of debate, and roundtable participants agreed that while gaps were occasionally an equal pay issue, more often they pointed to problems of representation in senior or well-paid roles.

Several participants at the discussion described imbalances in their organisations, where there is a drop-off in diversity at more senior levels. It’s a well known challenge in the civil service across the UK: Louise Warde Hunter, Department of Communities deputy secretary and gender champion for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, described the “stark imbalances” in the NICS workforce, where just one of the 11 most senior officials is female. Her concern over the drop-off in diversity at more senior levels is common for the civil service, and was mirrored by Samiah Javaid, who leads on the Department for Work and Pensions diversity and inclusion gender strategy, and Frances Wood, head of economic unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The challenge is not limited to the public sector, however, and Shell’s diversity and inclusion lead Catherine de Gannes, said the oil company had realised that top-level diversity depends on tackling inequalities early in workers’ careers.

“There’s a big question for us about what systems are stopping the cascades, both for men and women,” she said, adding that certain experiences – such as stints offshore – are important for progression at a later date. “If you don’t talk about career development plans and life choices early with both [men and women], how do we get them the experience they need?”

The assumption that organisations with a predominantly male workforce have the biggest pay gaps was debunked, with Loraine Martins, director of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail, citing a gap of just 11% at the transport company, which operates in a male-dominated sector and has a target of reaching a 20% female workforce by 2020. Martins attributed the below-average gap to work the company did around five years ago on making pay structures transparent.

At the other end of the scale, Sharon Murray, global head of diversity and inclusion at Avon – a beauty products company which has a 73% female UK workforce and hasn’t yet revealed its gap – said it had been “a very enlightening and slightly perplexing exercise”. She said Avon has had its pay equity externally validated for five years, but the company feared that reporting its gap could lead to “reputational damage” because press reports often conflate equal pay with the gap.

“It’s shone a very clear spotlight on the fact that we are a female-dominated organisation but we still have seen challenges in terms of retaining that level of representation into leadership, and that is predominantly what’s driving our gap,” Murray said.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of EHRC, the non-departmental public body responsible for enforcing UK equality legislation, was quizzed on penalties for companies that fail to comply with the new rules, which she said were underpinned by “quite hard-edged law” despite media reports that suggest otherwise.

The EHRC has the power to investigate private sector companies or assess compliance in the case of public organisations, said Hilsenrath. “Both end up with an unlawful act notice if you are in breach and that’s enforceable in court and there’s an unlimited fine attached to that… In both cases the process is necessarily public because we’d have to publish the terms of reference.”

Naeema Choudry, a partner at law firm Eversheds Sutherland said that far from resisting the new rules, some of her clients are digging deeper into their figures than the government’s reporting mechanism requires.

“With some clients we’ve been looking at the age factor because actually the statistics show very clearly the gender pay gap increases with age and in particular women who are over 50 and 55,” she said. Dr Rachael Docking, senior evidence manager at the non-profit Centre for Ageing Better, had earlier supported the need to explore this, pointing out that older women are often being overlooked for development opportunities, particularly if they don’t progress quickly earlier in their careers.

Choudry continued that clients have been looking at geographical and racial differences as well, and intersectionality was a theme picked up by other participants. Dr Jana Javornik, an associate professor in comparative social policy at the Noon Centre for Equality and Diversity, noted that “women are not a homogenous group”, and that being female and a minority – in terms of disability or LGBTQI for example – adds “another layer that I think we are not capturing at this point at all” in pay gap reporting.

“The gender pay gap increases with age and in particular women who are over 50 and 55”
Naeema Choudry

Gerri Clement, head of improvements in the strategy directorate of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described an emerging civil service practice: people from minority backgrounds are increasingly being invited to sit on panels, but if they are of a lower grade than other members they don’t always have the confidence to speak up. Making them the chair could help address this, Clement explains.

Participants agreed that women are often less confident than men at speaking out or stepping forward for certain roles, and Councillor Julie Iles, chair of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, referred to another example of best practice: the #AskHerToStand campaign, which aims to encourage more women to consider putting themselves forward for public roles as, for example, MPs, councillors or school governors.

When the discussion turned to procedures for dealing with sexual harassment claims, another example of good practice was shared by the FCO’s Wood. In the Foreign Office, she said, “first response officers” have been introduced. Colleagues can seek advice from these officers if they feel they may have been a victim of misconduct, before escalating problems to HR. Shell, meanwhile, has a global helpline for employees to raise concerns in confidence – and the company publishes (anonymously) the actions taken in each case, to demonstrate its zero-tolerance approach.

Conversely, Ruth Holdaway, chief executive of charity Women in Sport, said her sector was only just starting to get to grips with safeguarding, and she raised concerns about a lack of experience in handling allegations, particularly with the sector’s reliance on volunteers.

Holdaway also said getting men on board was crucial to advancing the status of women in the workplace, and this was one of the main subjects debated when the conversation moved on to pregnancy and maternity. Mark Freed, the only male roundtable participant and co-founder of E2W, a careers service for women working in the financial sector, said he believed men were increasingly frustrated at the lack of workplace support for fathers, while Wilson argued the government had “missed a huge opportunity” when it introduced shared parental leave.

She said the take-up of the scheme, which allows both parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave following the birth of a child, had been “diabolical” at less than 10%. A Nordic-style “use it or lose it” system should be introduced to “create some incentive for fathers to stay at home”, she suggested.

As the discussion moved through the topics one concern was common and it was expressed clearly by Warde Hunter of NICS. When she set up the NICS Women’s Network, she said, she was keen not to pin blame on individuals or groups. “We had to be very careful that the women weren’t being invited to go off and fix themselves, because as the point that I make repeatedly is: women aren’t broken, it is our system that needs addressing.”

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