22/08/2017 13:11 BST | Updated 25/08/2017 07:48 BST

Equality in the Workplace Means Moving Beyond the Headlines

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The way we work is out of step with the way we live. Without change, inequalities in pay may never close and our economy risks losing out on vital skills and talent. It's time to get granular in our understanding of what drives inequality and to re-think the workplace.

New research from the EHRC highlights inequalities in pay. Despite government commitments to close the gender pay gap in a generation, women still earn only 82 pence for every pound a man earns. Importantly though, this new report goes beyond the headline figures and draws attention to the diversity of experiences, too often masked by that headline figure.

Fawcett research published earlier this year revealed the role ethnicity plays in women's pay. The EHRC report highlights that BAME employees are paid on average 5.7% less than white employees. Those with disabilities earn 13.6% less than those without. However, when we start to look at this issue in detail there is no simple narrative. Whilst BAME employees earn less overall, some groups such as Indian women earn more on average than their white counterparts. Fawcett found that whilst Pakistani and Bangladeshi women experience a pay gap of 18% relative to white men, only 37% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are in work or looking for work in the first place compared to 57% of white British women. We can only overcome inequality at work and in our economy if we start to look at the nitty gritty of women's lives.

This report offers vital insights, but if the government genuinely cares about tackling inequality these figures should be published regularly as national statistics. Otherwise we can't see how the picture changes for different groups, and we risk focussing on the stats that we do have.

But armed with the information available it's clear that our model of work isn't working for large sections of society. We're stuck in an approach to earning a living that too often demands one-sided flexibility, with employees expected to be available at short notice but unable to take time out to support family. Long hours are rewarded even where this doesn't equate to productivity, and time in the office is prized despite technology making it easier than ever to work remotely. Only 10% of better-paying jobs are advertised as flexible or part-time.

We know that for many women and disabled people flexibility is essential for them to participate in our economy. Whether it's the need to attend physiotherapy sessions, to recuperate from a period of poorer health, or to balance working with caring for children. Without flexibility those unable to fit the traditional, rigid model of work drop out of employment or become trapped in jobs below their skill level that do allow them to meet their wider responsibilities and needs.

Flexibility is good for employees but it's also good for business - if you want to recruit the best candidates a traditional working model that isn't essential to what you do limits the pool of available talent. Having invested in training and recruiting team members, failure to offer flexibility can lead to staff leaving in search of a workplace that works for them; taking their skills, expertise and institutional knowledge with them.

Making all roles flexible by default from the point of the job advert onwards, unless there is a genuine business case against it, would overcome this. It's a win-win. Flexible working gives employers access to a wider range of talent and enables more employees to succeed and progress at work. The data makes clear that this is only part of the solution - old fashioned discrimination remains prevalent: 54,000 women have to leave their job early every year after becoming pregnant. Job applications with supposedly ethnic minority-sounding names are less likely to be successful than applications with white British sounding names. Research has also found that candidates with disabilities are less likely to be called to interview.

Employers of over 250 people are now required to report on their gender pay gaps but those who want to get the most out of their staff and ensure that they are treated fairly should go further and conduct a wider audit looking at a range of characteristics from gender and parental status, to disability and ethnicity, identifying the barriers to equality in their workplace. To shift the dial, we need to share the burden (and joys) of care fairly: Fawcett supports EHRC's call for use-it-or-lose-it leave for fathers with fair levels of pay. Employers can equalise their enhanced maternity and parental leave pay policies right now to encourage that.

To close the gaps once and for all, these and many other drivers of inequality in how we work must be addressed. But a switch to flexible working by default is one effective way we can take a step closer.