It's Not Women Who Need to Fix the Gender Pay Gap

Wednesday 2nd August 2017

I thought we were beyond finger pointing, that everyone now knows the complexities of the gender pay gap and we were finally starting to move toward addressing the problems, but apparently not. My ears burned last week when I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard on Thursday and the front headline read: 'City grandee leading campaign for more female executives: top BBC women in pay gap row 'let it happen'. Before needing to read any further I knew what the arguments would be, 'women don't ask' and 'they are not as vocal as men', I was not disappointed. 

The comments were from Sir Philip Hampton, the appointed co-chair of a government-commissioned review into increasing the number of women in senior positions. In an interview with the Evening Standard he said: "I suspect they [female broadcasters] let it happen because they weren't doing much about it." Jane Garvey, presenter of BBC Woman's Hour accused him of being 'out of touch' considering his position leading the government's review of workplace barriers. Out of touch or completely unaware of his own bias? 

Hampton, non-executive chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, suggested that the problem might be that women were simply not asking for pay rises at the same rate as men. "There isn't a list long enough for all men who've asked. Lots of men have trooped into my office saying they are underpaid, but no woman has ever done that," he said. "It is far more common for men to ask for more money than it is for women." 

This was a careless statement given that he has no evidence of the frequency of pay requests at the BBC and the success of men versus women. Hampton is reciting a tired argument that we have heard time and again that the problem is women themselves, rather than consider the problem might be the system and those running it. The reality is that the vast majority of those leading our businesses and country are men and the systems were designed by them. As Dame Helena Morrissey founder of the 30% Club, said: "We shouldn't have to play by the men's game to succeed." And indeed when we do, women are still less successful than men. 

A new study has dispelled the myth that women don't ask at the same rate as men, they are just less successful. Using data from 4,600 Australian workers across more than 800 employers, the study found no difference in the likelihood of asking, but men are 25% more likely to get a pay rise when they ask. It would be interesting to dig further into the reasons why, but I suspect we will again know the answers from other studies that show women are held to a different standard to men. 

A series of studies from Harvard Business Review found that women who are assertive at work are often perceived as too aggressive and are sometimes punished for it, both by male and female colleagues. Culturally we encourage boys and girls to behave in different ways and have developed ideas of what we consider attractive or appropriate behaviours for men or women. When a woman acts in a way typically associated with a man, consciously or subconsciously people have an aversive response. So it is unsurprising that women might be more reticent to negotiate pay if experience tells them it will not end favourably. 

I expect we will see more provocative headlines over the next year as companies with over 250 employees begin publishing gender pay data. In the words of Coldplay, "Nobody said it was easy" and I don't think we should pretend this will not be hard. Transparency is the only way to finally start focusing on changing the systemic problems that allow unconscious biases to favour one type of person and behaviour and not on trying to fix women and others that don't fit the white male stereotype. 

Written by Amanda Ciske, Head of Diversity & Inclusion Communications at Harvey Nash