|The Prime Minister hailed it a landmark moment in the fight for workplace equality, demanding action from business to ‘close the gap for good within a generation’. Doing so, she added, is not only imperative because ‘equality for women is a right’ but because ‘our whole society is poorer as long as it remains unrealised’. The reporting requirements made headlines across the western world, with the New York Times describing the aim as to close the gap through ‘transparency and shame’. It will take more than transparency, however, to create the sea change in workplace culture that is necessary if women are to truly have the same opportunities as men. So, following the reporting deadline, what happens next and how can businesses begin to demonstrate leadership on the issue?
Of the 10,000 plus companies that reported, a significant proportion published an accompanying plan to address pay disparity. Intense political pressure will now be applied to the business community to deliver on those plans and demonstrate progress year-on-year in reducing the pay gap. Rachel Reeves, the influential Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, has announced an inquiry into compliance with the reporting requirements and executive pay, whilst Nicky Morgan, the equally influential Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, has made it abundantly clear that gender diversity – particularly in the financial services sector – will continue to be a top priority for the committee over the course of her chairmanship. The Government, meanwhile, will continue to demand that industry makes significant strides towards implementing the recommendations of the 2016 Hampton-Alexander Review, which set a target of one third of leadership positions in FTSE 250 companies being filled by women by 2020. Gender pay, in this regard, must not be viewed in isolation but as part of a much broader diversity agenda which enjoys cross-party support. Only by making progress in ensuring senior positions are filled by women can organisations hope to begin to address the gender pay gap.
It is not only businesses coming under pressure to make progress. Government, too, is already facing demands to prove that mandating public reporting will actually lead to widespread and systemic change. For starters, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will now ‘assess the scale of non-compliance and decide whether it is necessary to take a staged approach to enforcement’ and the BEIS committee inquiry will examine in detail what the Government can do, if anything, to mandate organisations to implement a long term strategy, rather than simply pushing transparency. As a result, organisations operating in all sectors of the UK economy will face multiple layers of political pressure to address the gender pay gap from influential select committees to the opposition to Government itself, which, in turn, is determined to prove that it has done more than simply talk tough on workplace diversity.
Whilst this presents obvious reputational – and legal – challenges for business, it also presents an opportunity to demonstrate that they take their responsibility as employers seriously and to show leadership on the issue. In the Prime Minister’s widely publicised article in The Telegraph on the day of the reporting deadline, she praised Virgin Money, Aviva and TSB Bank for acknowledging the problem, reporting early and demonstrating a clear plan to reduce workplace inequality. Theresa May singled those organisations out for ‘understanding that helping to make the most of women’s talent is in their own commercial interest’.
From the Government’s perspective, last week’s reporting deadline was only the first step in a long journey towards workplace equality. The data has shown that, whilst progress has been made in the past decade in reducing the gender pay gap, it remains stubbornly, and unacceptably, high. The Government has delivered on its promise of shining a light on the extent of the problem. It is now over to the business community to implement a clear plan to reduce the pay gap across all sectors of the UK economy. Getting ahead of the curve now will establish your organisation as a leader in this space, facilitating a key Government policy, and allowing you to reap the reputational benefits that come with it. Whatever your figures show, one thing is clear; inaction is not an option. Far from going away following the reporting deadline, the issue of workplace diversity will continue to feature prominently in political discourse in the years to come. It is now incumbent on individual businesses to analyse their figures, set out a blueprint for change and make demonstrable strides to creating a more equal workplace.