March blog: The gender pay gap isn’t really about pay

​​​​​​​A bit of a contentious statement? Yes, of course it’s about pay in the sense that it measures the difference in pay between male and female employees, but actually it’s really a measure, or sign, of wider gender inequalities in the workplace.

Photo of Luann Donald

You may think that things in local government aren’t that bad. Local government has always employed more women and worked hard to support and promote equality. And in England our sector has an average gender pay gap of five per cent. Some would say ‘that’s ok’, after all the national figure is 17.9 per cent and other sectors such as the civil service are reporting a gap of 12.7 per cent.

But five per cent is still too much, especially taking on board that three-quarters of our workforce are women.  And one key concern in this is that the main reason given by councils for this pay gap is that our predominantly female workforce is concentrated in more junior, lower paid jobs. This under-representation of women at the top compared to at the bottom of our organisations is a real problem for us and our communities in many ways. Sam Smethers, chief executive of the equalities charity the Fawcett Society, makes the excellent point that “the public sector matters for women because it is women who are overwhelmingly dependent on public services, so getting women into decision-making positions is key.”

So as we approach the deadline for the second year of reporting, what are councils doing about their gender pay gaps? Well the good news is the reports published by local authorities in 2018 clearly showed that we are not just accepting the status quo; we are actively working to change our workplaces and change our gender pay gap figures. The chair of the LGA’s Resources Board noted that more progress has been made in local government than in many other sectors by addressing gender pay disparities through fundamental reviews of pay and grading structures and promoting equality in all staffing decisions.

At the LGA we’ve heard about lots of fantastic things that councils are doing to change their workplaces and change the experience of their female, and male, workers to be modern, flexible, customer-focussed and representative public service employers, engaging with communities and partners in new and different ways. Things such as promoting family-friendly policies that allow women and men to balance ambition with caring responsibilities, creating quality flexible jobs and redesigning senior roles and working patterns. Things such as reaching out to a more diverse range of candidates in your communities, using balanced interview panels and assessing pay structures to look at pay differentials between senior male dominated roles and more junior female-dominated roles.

But you may have seen predictions in the news and HR press that despite lots of work on this issue it looks like many organisations will see worse gender pay gap figures in this year’s reporting. How? Shining a light on pay discrepancies was meant to spur action and create positive change. But actually its highlighting that there is no quick fix. Especially for organisations like ours who employ more women in more junior roles - retaining and developing these women into more senior roles could take years.

Sam Smethers was not surprised by the news that the second round of reporting could give worse figures. She has likened changing the gender pay gap figures to changing the course of an oil tanker, and in a recent BBC interview she said: “this is a long-term issue and we need companies to put long-term plans in place. The key thing is are they committee to do it? Do they have a three to five year strategy that they can implement?”

So if your figures are worse this year, take heart. We know it takes time and that small things can make a big difference to your figures. We’ve seen where a senior female leaving a smaller council can have a negative impact on the overall figures. Or where a genuine diversity target of recruiting more female firefighters has increased the gender pay gap in Fire and Rescue Authorities because these are initially lower paid jobs. The key here is to use the opportunity of the gender pay gap reporting service to explain the reasons for your pay gap and explain what you are doing to change things.

Join in the conversation with us on twitter @LGAWorkforce.

Luann Donald

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