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Know what’s spooky? Your gender pay gap percentage doesn’t tell you as much as you think it does…

When you read about the gender pay gap, you’re often reading about mere percentages. In accordance with government statutory guidance, organisations of 250 or more employees must calculate and publish these gender pay gap figures:

  • mean (average) gender pay gap for hourly pay
  • median (middle) gender pay gap for hourly pay
  • percentage of men and women in each hourly pay quarter
  • percentage of men and women receiving bonus pay
  • mean (average) gender pay gap for bonus pay
  • median (middle) gender pay gap for bonus pay

In reality, the mean and median percentages are aggregated and are much better suited to huge datasets like UK-level pay gap analysis as calculated by the Office for National Statistics. In fact, guess where the GPG consultation pinched the idea of an aggregated percentage from? They cannot accurately capture the full scope of your organisation.

Say the two following sentences out loud in front of the mirror, but don’t say either three times in a row!

  • I want to know about the differences in the representation of men and women throughout the pay range of my organisation so I can track it and take action where I find systemic/human or occupational barriers – so I’m going to calculate, track and base my narration on the difference between the average man and average woman.
  • I want to know about the differences in the representation of men and women throughout the pay range of my organisation so I can track it and take action where I find systemic/human or occupational barriers – so I’m going to calculate, track and base my narration on the difference between the middle man and middle woman.

Now that is the start to a horror story… measuring these changeable numbers, easily influenced by imbalanced and/or small sample sizes and potentially trying to take action – not to uncover barriers, improve recruitment, retention or policies, but to reduce a percentage! Cue the spooky music…

Measuring gender pay gaps in this way misses a vital aspect of gender inequity: representation. The hard work is figuring out who is missing in the representation of your pay range, senior leadership and where they are if they’re not there. In July, Engender, Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation, released a report citing that nearly 500 women are ‘missing’ from key positions of power in Scotland. The report highlights:

In many cases, improved percentages mask marginal increases in the number of women in leadership, rather than a step-change in employment practices, organisational culture, or commitment to gender equality. In the business sector, for example, proportional improvement in representation reflects the achievements of one or two individuals in a space that is almost exclusively dominated by men.  

Engender

Ultimately, gender pay gap percentages can often act as get out of jail free cards where organisations can share a statistic that isn’t an accurate representation of gender equity or their strategic and intentional commitment to improving diversity in their workplace. In order to make real changes, timeseries, evidence-based insights must lead conversations. This will not change overnight, but the work needs to be done now to understand where you can have an effect and where, due to entrenched sector-specific circumstances or societal norms and barriers, it’s going to take a lot longer.

When it comes to gender pay gap reporting and the mean/median percentages that are being used to measure progress, it can be easy to compare your company to others, but this is the worst thing you can do. Even within sectors, each company is unique, and has a completely different pool of employees with different lived experiences – your data will reflect this. And remember, you can’t see their construct or what is behind the data because it isn’t that granular – their percentage doesn’t represent their whole organisation accurately. What happens in the case of comparison is that you end up measuring your figure, which isn’t useful anyway, against another, which is equally as useless. It may give your senior leadership comfort that your progress is allegedly better than or equal to your sector, but it doesn’t give you anything to act on.

The truth is, however daunting it may seem, diversifying your workplace and making meaningful, long-lasting change takes time. Many organisations emphasise their plans to reduce their ‘pay gap’ figure, but this single percentage does not recognise that there can be multiple gaps at different levels throughout the pay range and that pay gaps are just a symptom and not the scary disease…

So this Halloween, why not start creating a workplace that is diverse, inclusive and equitable? One that draws insight via a robust process of data analysis, a recognition and challenge of systemic barriers faced by women, and targeted action to increase representation across the pay range and job landscape of your organisation. The key is to approach this work as a process of evolution, measuring your progress not against other organisations but against the position of your company where it used to be. Marginal gains, continuous improvement, whatever you want to call it – it’s the enduring process that will allow you the confidence to bury your single percentage thinking so deep that it won’t rise to bite you in the bottom (line) next year.

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