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Gender Pay Rules: What If No One Hears You Scream?

28/03/2017 15:03 BST | Updated 28/03/2017 15:03 BST

So, this is how it will be: firms reveal embarrassing disparities in gender pay and nobody raises an eyebrow.

Schroders, the very large fund management company, has just become the first FTSE100 firm to publish its gender pay gap, which will be required from all of them by April next year. And it wasn't pretty reading.

The company stated that pay for its female employees is 33% less on average than for its male workers.

Embarrassing? One would like to think so. Although, credit to Schroders for reporting a full year early. But apart from the Financial Times, the disclosure went largely unreported.

This matters. A cornerstone of the new requirement has been the Government's continuing insistence on the power of shame over legislation to force change. The same belief has been used in the campaign to get more women into boardrooms, and with only mixed results.

But what happens if no shame is applied? What if no minister stands up and demands action? Schroders argues that the disparity actually reflects the shortage of women in top roles. Itself hardly something to excuse.

Perhaps what women must do is vote with their skills, and simply not work for firms that appear to have difficulties with girls. Three-quarters of Schroders highest earners are men, the Financial Times report noted.

In some ways, Schroders is hardly out of line. The global consultancy PwC estimates that the gender pay gap in financial services is 34%, compared with 18.1% for full and part time work generally in the UK.

Pay discrimination is not something that should be handled out of the public relations playbook, in other words with supportive language, targets, affirmations and inaction. It needs measures and proper sanctions to enforce, not stalling.

Unfortunately, the City, to loosely define financial services, is still male dominated, but by men good at shape-shifting into positions of stated integrity without actually changing much.

Of course, there are many reasons for pay inequality, starting with the failure of schools to offer female role models from the wider community. There are also issues around flexibility, which is disproportionately requested by women when they have children; and who are then disadvantaged when they return to paid work.

What we must hope from these painful pay revelations is that the culture does start to shift; that as a public record emerges of gender inequality it will serve as a reprimand, even if no media organisation or politician shouts about it. A mute rebuke available to be viewed by staff and shareholders is better than no rebuke at all.

Over time, women will learn to avoid firms that offer a reinforced glass ceiling on pay. They may not even bother going for interviews. The losers then will be employers. Talent is a weapon in the workplace.

We must hope that gender pay reporting, which will affect every firm with more than 250 employees, will create a debate about how we make work fair for everyone. There are many pressures these days, after all, and some are even existential: Robots need no pay at all.

There needs to be a better, fairer distribution of rewards. And that will involve looking closely at what contributes to disparity. We will need to address education and flexible working. We may no longer live in an age of overt gender prejudice, but we may be destined to live with its consequences unless underlying issues are tackled.

Schroders has not shrunk from casting a light on itself, and for that we should be grateful. If we are lucky, this means a large, well regarded firm is going to change things. It will be the moment to applaud them: as a standard bearer for change rather than emblematic of when none seems to be taking place.