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Marginal gains could be the key to gender pay

1 April 2019

This article first appeared in People Management, 21 March 2019

Reducing a gender pay gap is not easy, but as Val Dougan explains, adopting a little-by-little approach could significantly improve outcomes.

The scale of the task of reducing the gender pay gap was brought into stark focus recently after 40 per cent of employers reported an increase in this year’s round of reporting, compared to 2018. Being realistic about the timescale for change is essential. Unless there are some obvious quick wins for most employers, reducing their gap will take years. 

That’s not to say that organisations should passively wait for change to come. One option is to apply the approach of the Team Sky (soon to be Team Ineos) cycling coach, Sir Dave Brailsford, who has promoted the concept of marginal gains: the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

If your organisation is frustrated with the pace of change, perhaps the following could deliver some marginal gains?

Unconscious influences

Danish research from 2018 shows that male managers with more daughters “exhibit higher sensitivity to … closing the gender pay gap by increasing female compensation.” This is because these managers have a higher degree of ‘female socialisation’.

Denmark introduced gender pay gap wage information in 2006; employees received information about their firm’s wage gap rather than it being publicly available. The overall conclusion of the study showed that pay transparency does reduce the gender pay gap.
This is relevant because it shows the extent to which unconscious influences can affect management decision making and underlines the need to reduce subjectivity. It also leads on to the point that salary increases and the salary levels of new recruits can have a significant impact on the gender pay gap. Ideally, there should be centralised oversight of salary increases, and salary bandings applied, to introduce an element of objectivity to the process. 

The wording of adverts

Studies have shown that gender bias can start as early as the job advert. Textio analysed more than 78,000 adverts to show that the language used can predict the gender of the potential candidate. Words such as ‘exhaustive’, ‘enforcement’ and ‘fearless’ are perceived as being masculine in tone, and have a different impact from ‘transparent’, ‘catalyst’ and ‘in touch with’, which are said to be feminine in tone. Thinking about these aspects in advance can make significant differences. Technology providers are of course entering this market in a bid to offer ‘debiased technology.’

If gender imbalance is the key driver of the gender pay gap in your organisation, and it is obvious that more men or women are required at certain levels, then using gender neutral language may tip the balance. 

Distance between home and work

Referred to as the gender commuting gap, studies from the ONS and IFS highlight that men travel longer to work. Although the evidence of the link between the gender commuting gap and the gender pay gap requires further research, the evidence so far suggests there is a link, as the gaps closely mirror each other. 

According to IFS research, the gender commuting gap widens substantially in the decade after a woman gives birth. The ONS research reported that apart from those living in London, women in every region of the UK are more likely to live within 15 minutes of their workplace. The IFS research linked the commuting difference between men and women to the fact that women are more likely to be the primary carer. 

Whether you want to consider adding the impact of a gender commuting gap to your list of marginal gains will depend on your location, labour market needs and approach to flexible working.