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Greater employee flexibility is needed to reduce the gender pay gap

25/07/2016 17:26 | Updated 25 July 2016

This year's International Women's Day has done more than most to highlight the urgency of closing the gender pay gap in the workplace once and for all - with gender equality issues remaining high on the news agenda three months later. Most recently, it has emerged that sexist attitudes start from an early age, with Halifax's annual pocket money survey showing that boys aged between eight and 15 get an average of 13% more pocket money than girls. But on the flipside both Brainlabs and the University of Essex have taken laudable steps to make their own gender pay equal.

One of the reasons for the pocket money difference however, according to the survey, is that boys are more likely to complain and ask for more money. This attitude tallies with what our own research has shown in later life, with men far more likely to ask for - and receive - a pay rise at work.

So how can employers be more encouraged to move further towards equality, and a position where male and female employees feel equally prepared to seek the right levels of pay appropriate to their role and performance? Well, they could do worse than taking a leaf out of the Scandinavian book. The most recent Global Gender Gap index decrees Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden as the top four countries worldwide in terms of how well they are leveraging their female talent pool, based on economic, educational, health-based and political indicators. The UK trails in 18th position - ahead of 127 other countries including the United States and Spain, but behind the likes of Slovenia and Nicaragua.

One reason for the Nordic countries leading the way in gender equality with among the lowest salary gaps worldwide is due to the transparent labour law and social policies that are in place. There are abundant opportunities for women to rise to positions of leadership - in Norway, for example, publicly listed companies have been required to have at least 40 per cent of each sex on their boards since 2008 - while women make up the majority of people in universities in all of the countries.

And a lesson that UK employers can learn from Scandinavia is around flexible working, for example to help both members of a couple work around childcare - not simply putting the bias towards this being the woman's responsibility. While the Government last year introduced new rights to allow UK parents to share leave following the birth or adoption of their child, it will take some time for this to take effect in the contracts, and mindsets, of employers and employees alike.

Most terms of employment still tend to err towards the assumption that maternity leave will be much longer than paternity leave. Employers may well offer enhanced maternity pay to female employees - however, there is no legal obligation in the UK to offer enhanced paternity pay. In Scandinavia, paternity leave is mandatory and the right to enhanced paternity has been in place for much longer, and as a direct consequence, men take off more time from work to be with their children than anywhere else in the world.

It was only back in 2014 that the UK gave employees the right to request flexible working - meaning a company has to 'reasonably' consider such requests, whereas previously only employees with caring responsibilities were legally covered. But we can still go further. The option for flexible working should be the norm at the start of everyone's employment, rather than arbitrarily offered by employers purely on request or because someone has 'earnt the right' for flexible working after a period of employment. It can also be equally available for men and women. Given the spiralling costs of raising a child - with the cost to 21 years old now hitting £230,000 - such a scheme can also help couples with childcare arrangements and give both of them the greatest opportunity for a healthy balance for success at home and in the workplace.

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