Mind Your Language!

A few years ago, Voice At The Table had a popular workshop, talking to senior leaders about the significance of using the right words. And then its popularity waned. Now, it seems, the notion that words matter is back: businesses everywhere are dropping old-fashioned terminology like “blacklist” and “master and slave” servers.

Last week, Twitter and JP Morgan announced that they are dropping these controversial terms as well as “whitelist” and “man hours” along with other offenders.  Estate agents are also reconsidering the use of the term “master” bedroom.

And what about this “mis-step” by H&M?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words have a massive impact. We often use them without thinking and without intent to offend.  But a simple reflection on some of the words and phrases we regularly use discloses their historical meaning, which is no longer reflective of society:  businessman, chairman, black sheep, guys, lads, psycho, schizo, “call a spade a spade”, “boys will be boys”, blind drunk, deaf to the world and many more.

You’re probably surprised about a number of these (as was I), but there are the very basic terms which ought to be obvious.  For instance, only days ago, I received an email - an FT newsflash – that announced the stepping down of Lloyds Bank’s current chairman – Antonio Horta-Osorio.  His replacement – the next chairMAN – was yet to be named! Does this mean a woman is not a possible contender for the job?

These are shocking mistakes that should not be made these days, especially by organisations that are looking for our trust and loyalty.

Many of us don't think twice when using these well-trodden words, as they have established meanings that don't mean to exclude.  In the end, however, communication is less about how you say things and more about how what’s being said is heard.  That’s why the Use of Language is one of our eight Inclusive Behaviours.

When expressing yourself, instead of saying things like a “female engineer” or a “blind man”, say “a woman on our engineering team” or “a man who is blind”.

Avoid the use of jargon – which is easily caught up in non-inclusive history – and above all, avoid labels.  Labels overgeneralise and lump all of us together into one pot, which is most certainly too small to comfortably fit the myriad of shapes, sizes and colours of humanity.  Oh, oops, have I just done what I’m asking others not to do?  Well, I don’t know.

My main point is, we ought to try, and be more conscious of our words.  If we do just that alone, we will be far less likely to mis-step.

Will Covid Wipe Out the Macho Leadership Culture?

By Melissa Jackson

If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the Covid pandemic, it’s that some of the best leadership skills - in the face of a crisis – have been demonstrated by women. It feels like the time is right to shed the macho leadership style that has dominated politics and the boardroom and look to a future where empathy and co-operation prevail. [continue reading]

Let’s take the most extreme example of macho leadership – Donald Trump – the man who consistently and bullishly holds such inflated self-belief that he selectively ignores the opinions of others, believing his “superior” judgement is beyond reproach. Predictably, he’s rejected the advice of medical professionals and unsurprisingly, the US currently has the world’s highest death-rate from Covid-19.

Then there’s Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly trivialised Covid-19, describing it as a “little flu” that did not warrant “hysteria” and claimed that his country would be protected from the virus by its climate and youthful population. Brazil is currently second in the league table of global Coronavirus deaths and - in an almost retaliatory act of irony – the virus has infected Bolsonaro.

The countries with some of the lowest Covid mortality figures are led by women, including New Zealand, Norway, Germany and Taiwan. Both New Zealand and Norway’s leaders have exhibited leadership styles that have been described as “empathetic” and “collaborative”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently, the esteemed British musician Brian Eno, said, the countries that have come out of Coronavirus “well”  have “spent more time listening to their scientists than to their ideologues” and that “macho posturing has proved to be worse than useless” in the face of the pandemic.

I hear that over-worked conundrum, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?” ringing in my ears.

Joining in the Woman’s Hour debate and commenting on the highly-competent and distinguished female leaders, Chair of Time’s Up UK (see link below) Dame Heather Rabbatts said, “We always used to say you can’t show your feelings as a leader. Here they are showing their feelings; at the same time, being incredibly decisive, basing their judgements on evidence, being collaborative and listening.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a formidable sense of ‘this is what constitutes leadership’.

“It isn’t the shouting; it isn’t the vilification of others or the demonising of others. It is absolutely about this sense of humanity, aligned with clear leadership.”

Dame Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyds of London, told the programme that she was often criticised for not being more autocratic, a behaviour that is allied with a male leadership style.

Dame Heather said the female political leaders have demonstrated collaboration, building alliances, listening and humility.

These are skills that could usefully transfer to the boardroom and the corporate hierarchy.

For years, there have been suggestions that women’s leadership styles might be different and beneficial. But too often, political organisations and companies have focused on persuading women to behave more like men if they want to lead or succeed. However, the female heads of state, operating in a Covid world, are a case study of the leadership traits men may want to learn from women.

It’s time they were adopted across the board and the macho tactics eradicated. Let’s seize the moment and see something positive emerge from this crisis to shape the leaders of today and tomorrow.

For more articles related to this, click on the links below.

Leaders  (Guardian)

 

Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn From Women (HBR)

Time’s Up UK

The story of pink!

What do you associate with the colour pink?

Nowadays, most would consider pink to be a girl's colour.  We're told it's a colour that stands for charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, sweetness, childhood, femininity and romance.

So why would Voice At The Table – a gender parity and balance advocate – choose pink as its dominant colour?  Doesn’t that reinforce the stereotypes attached to women and, as such, go against everything we stand for?

Not as I see it.

I chose pink to defy the stereotype and encourage others to move away from labels.  We help people see beyond convention.  The challenge we offer is for each of us to be confronted with something that seems straight forward and learn to understand the complexity beyond.  Let’s not judge books by their covers.  Let’s read the pages in between and gain a greater understanding of people and perspectives.

Let’s start with the colour pink.

Pink didn’t start out as a colour of girls.  In fact, in the 19th century, pink was a colour associated with boys.  As red was the colour closely-associated with men, pink – a lighter shade of red – was the colour most often chosen for little men, as boys were then regarded.

In June 1918, an American trade publication even wrote:

The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

Pink also had different connotations in different cultures.  In India, for example, pink was seen as a symbol of a "welcome embrace", while in Japan it was the colour of masculinity and now, the colour of Spring (when the famous cherry blossoms colour Japan pink throughout).  In Thailand, pink is the colour of Tuesday so anyone born on that day may wear pink on a Tuesday and adopt pink as their colour.  Italy’s sports newsletter La Gazetta della Sport uses pink paper to stand out and awards a pink jersey to the winner of Italy’s biggest bicycle race.

In Catholicism, pink symbolises joy and happiness.

Nowadays, the colour is closely associated with women’s issues and empowerment, as well as the LGBTQ+ movement.  And of course we all would recognise the pink ribbon as the emblem of breast cancer awareness.

I am surprised at how many different meanings the colour pink conjures up, and for all these meanings and reasons, I’m pleased to peg our name to it.

3 Reasons Diversity Initiatives Fail to Shift the Dial on Gender Balance

Advances in achieving gender balance in the corporate space are slow, at best.  Despite the deafening cries for progress towards gender parity, progress is, indeed, evading us.  The latest gender pay gap statistics in the UK prove the point, with the largest pay gap reported in the construction sector at 25%, followed by finance and insurance sector at 22% and education at 20%.   The World Economic Forum predicts it will take the world another 217 years to reach parity, and many other reports show that, while we appear to be inching closer to a more diverse and inclusive world, progress is, well, patchy and sometimes questionable.

I have to ask myself the question why?  After all, in my conversations with clients and other companies, it seems diversity and inclusion is an important part of the business agenda, and gender balance even more so.   Most have already spent copious resources on various initiatives that intend to support and advance women - and, more broadly, diversity - within the organisation.  And yet, few would claim genuine parity at all levels.

If you ask me, part of the problem is the belief that we’re doing all the right things whereas the truth is that most of the current initiatives fail to shift the dial on diversity.

Here are my 3 reasons for it:

All female leadership and other initiatives

The intentions behind programmes that support the advancement of women in the organisation are great, but there are a number of problems with this approach: (i) when programmes cater to women only, the overarching message the company is sending to its women is that there is something wrong with them and that it is trying to ‘fix’ them.  This is particularly true of leadership programmes which intimate that women need more development than men to become leaders; (ii) even successful female-only initiatives tend to backfire because, to the extent they succeed to motivate and engage women, by the time women go back to their unchanged work environment, frustration starts to set in as they continue to perform in an environment that fails to recognise the value of their authentic contribution; and (iii) initiatives that are aimed at a specific segment of the population tend to be divisive and fail to attract the requisite amount of support and inclusion to harness lasting progress.

Appointing a female head to ‘tackle the problem’

In many cases, executive teams are genuine about their desire to advance women.  But they don’t recognise it as a central business priority and look at it as a project to be managed.  Having identified it as an issue, they tend to look for the right person to address it which, in many cases, happens to be the one woman on the executive team.  I have heard this story so many times.

These women, or other senior women in the organisation, are anointed as Head of People, or Gender Diversity Sponsor or similar, and are expected to single-handedly ‘solve the issue’.  If they’re lucky, the board will agree to authorise resources to support the position in the form of additional help and/or budget. Yet in most cases, all the resources are going to be insufficient because the ‘problem’ cannot be solved by one or few individuals, and certainly not this particular ‘problem’ (because it’s not so much a problem but an unexplored opportunity).

Parachuting women into senior roles

In many cases, gender imbalance exists primarily at the very top.  Many companies tackle the issue by bringing in lateral hires as they don’t appear to have their own senior female pipeline to address the disparity.  Sadly, this is one of the worst solutions to this issue.  Having spoken to a number of corporates who have taken such measures it becomes clear very quickly that there is no substitute for ‘growing your own’.  Attracting senior women from elsewhere is, at best, a temporary solution.  These freshly-hired women – like the the women who have been at the company for years – will be exposed to the very same culture that failed to produce the senior pipeline in the first instance.  As a result, the new senior female leaders are likely to become disenchanted with their roles as they come to realise that they are not hired for their expertise and contribution but, instead (to put it bluntly), to tick a box.   Even if they do succeed in making a contribution to the company that is genuinely valued, companies have to carefully guard these women from being hired away by others with a similar agenda.  The reality is that there are not that many senior women out there who seem to satisfy the existing requirements for board or senior level hires (although, of course, many more women can indeed to the job) so, unless companies develop their own female leadership pipeline, they stand to lose those recent hires to others that have a similar approach to gender balance.

These are but a few reasons current initiatives fail to advance gender balance at work, and there are a number of others.  If you would like to explore this topic further, email us for a longer version of this post.

That was the month that was… June 2018

by Rebecca Dalton

The government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review issued its interim report on gender balance with a list of some of the reasons given for not appointing women to FTSE company boards.

Here are some of them:

  • “all the 'good' women have already been snapped up"
  • “our annual report runs to 165 pages. Most women are too weak to carry it to the boardroom”
  • “we have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else's turn"
  • “most women don't want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board"
  • “this is a dynamic 24/7 company. When the Harvey Nics shoe sale is on, we lose our female workforce for days on end. We can’t risk share prices collapsing just because it’s 30% off on the Jimmy Choo’s.”

* two of these are not real excuses

Meanwhile, improving diversity at airlines was a big theme at the International Air Transport Associations’ annual conference in Sydney. Just the right forum for Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker to treat us to his view that an airline has to be led by a man ‘because it’s a very challenging position.’ Cue a slightly stunned pause and audible gasps. After which his audience at the press conference – and social media worldwide – decided laughter was the best medicine. Allowing Mr Baker to claim it was a joke all along.

Yes, of course it was dear.

Mr Baker has form in this area, once describing female air stewards on other airlines as ‘grandmothers’ and boasting that the average age at Qatar was 26.

Furiously rowing back on his cracking ‘joke’ he issued a statement that ‘Qatar Airways firmly believes in gender equality and… it would be my pleasure if I could help develop a female candidate to be the next CEO of Qatar Airways.’

Hopefully, that position may become available quicker than you think, grandad.

What’s a network to do? Do’s and Don’ts for running a successful in-house network

The rise of the in-house women’s network over the last few years has been remarkable.  I watched them grow from informal gathering of a few colleagues to being influential partners to the organisation.  Having chaired a number of networks myself, I understand their challenges and often work with network committees to help them identify their purpose and set strategy for maximum impact.

Here are a few tips of my own to the running of a successful, influential network:

DO have a strategy

It is difficult to have impact without a clear strategy.  A clear strategy makes it easier to ask for resources and to attract volunteers.  Network leaders should identify the network’s purpose, set goals and determine how they are going to achieve them.

DO represent the grassroots

One of the great benefits of a women’s network is that it is squarely rooted in the junior and mid-levels of seniority within the organisations and understands the challenges of women at those levels (e.g. need for flexible working, appreciation and promotion transparency).  Networks listen and represent those challenges up the chain, providing an essential and often-lacking communications channel between management and team members.

DO provide safe spaces

Networks are great at providing a forum for discussion of stimulating topics that may not get aired, such as what it takes for women to thrive or how to treat others so they feel valued.  One crucial function, therefore, is to hold that space for members so that they can discuss challenges, apprehensions and experiences in a judgment-free, supportive environment.  Whether it’s by hosting lunch-and-learns on specific topics or running facilitated discussions, a safe space in which members can debate and think is worth its weight in gold.

DON’T take on too much

I frequently see networks attempting to deliver the work of another work function, like running soft skills training or helping deliver CSR strategy. While it’s great to cooperate, networks should set boundries between their responsibilities and the responsibilities of support functions.  Networks are run by volunteers whose precious time should be spent delivering on their clearly defined and cautiously guarded remit.

DON’T exclude people

Some women’s networks resist opening their membership to men.  In my experience, this is a mistake.  Men who join gender networks identify with their agenda and want to help.  It would be foolish to turn down members who are supportive and can help raise awareness.  This is also an opportunity to model the behaviours you’d like to see, by treating others the way you’d like to be treated: welcomed, valued and included.

DON’T be afraid to ask for a healthy budget

As women, we tend to shy away from asking for a robust network budget, feeling undeserving or unimportant.  As a result, we often pre-empt the outcome of a budget conversation with our own misgivings.  Yet having a budget that allows networks to achieve their stated goals is crucial and empowering.  Do what it takes by enlisting senior allies, collaborating with other networks and clearly identifying the commercial benefits of the network’s existence.  Above all, don't underestimate the value of your contribution to the organisation.

If you would like me to help your company’s network, please get in touch.

Do you have the right people on your leadership team?

If you’re a CEO or a Managing Director of a team or a business, you will have noticed that things are changing. Fast. So fast that most of us are finding it hard to keep up. The amount of information being flung at us is nearly insurmountable. To such an extent that, in order for us to digest as much of it as possible, we dedicate an average of 3 seconds to any digital message (emails, tweets, blogs etc) before we decide whether it is going to capture our interest or end up in the ever-growing junk box.

You will have noticed the louder voices of so-called minorities – women, Millennials, the politically-neglected – urging the incumbent regime and processes to change.

You will have noticed technological advances – from the speed with which information is spread to the integration of artificial intelligence with human endeavours – that affect our daily interactions.

The world is undoubtedly changing. Here are five concrete reasons to ask yourself whether you have the right people on your team to embrace those changes:

  1. Ever-growing complexity

The explosion of available knowledge and information nowadays makes it impossible for any one person – no matter how clever – to absorb it all. The sheer vastness of information and the advances that we have made in mathematics, science, genetics, medicine, etc. make any one person’s job to understand how that knowledge interacts in order to solve one problem far too complex for any one type of person. The need to solve complex problems infers a need for diversity.  The only way that vast pools of knowledge in different disciplines can be leveraged to solve complex problems is by bringing together a group of individuals who hold vastly different types of information, experience and knowledge.

Consider this example: In 2006, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asked the public to help Netflix predict viewer film ratings. Netflix announced an open competition, rewarding anyone who outperforms their own Cinematch consumer film rating algorithm by at least 10% with $1 million. Various groups went to task. Among them, teams of mathematical whizzes, computer programmers, psychologists, engineers and data scientists. Each team did all it could to improve the algorithm. A couple of the teams achieved remarkable success by improving Cinematch’s accuracy by over 8%. But not any one single team was able to get any closer to the requisite 10% in order to win the grand prize.

You can probably guess what happened next. The top-performing team realised that their knowledge alone was not going to be enough to crack this code and offered to collaborate with other teams that had vastly different experience and knowledge. The team of data scientists collaborated with a team of computer programmers and a team of psychologists. Each group, however intelligent, operated on a set of assumptions that defined its knowledge, blinded by a number of facts that were disguised by these assumptions. It is only when the teams came together and broadened their understanding of complex human behaviour that they were able to succeed.

So, while, individually, each team had vast knowledge and understanding of their area of expertise, it was not until they combined the very different knowledge and experience that they were able to exceed the requisite 10% threshold.

In today’s world, most business problems are complex. They are complicated by the fact that systems are at once different (depending on where in the world they might be located) and yet are connected through the power of technology. They are complicated by the sheer layers of possible outcomes. They are complicated by different tax structures, legal instruments and cultural behaviours in different jurisdictions. Even a business that works solely in one country will not be able to escape the every-growing complexity of our world because – no matter where we operate – we are digitally connected to each other and, as a result, influenced by everything that’s happening around us, be it in our community or on the other side of the world. While IQ is important, as the example demonstrates, IQ itself is no longer sufficient to solve the problem - you need cognitive diversity, the different ways in which we interpret situations and solve problems. Chances are, if you’re recruiting the most intelligent people out there, you’re recruiting a very similar type of thinker. In order to grow the diversity pool in your business, stop paying attention to old recruitment habits (including the level of someone’s intellect) and start thinking about how to get as diverse a pool of candidates as you can muster.

  1. Rising global middle class

The world’s middle-class population growth has shifted from established market jurisdictions to those we consider as ‘emerging’. Our global middle-class population is estimated to grow from approximately 3 billion in 2015 to over 5 billion by 2030. Half of this growth is occurring in Asia (China and India) as well as other emerging markets, including Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

The explosion of the middle-class population presents the single biggest opportunity for most businesses. Yet to take advantage of those opportunities, a business must be finely calibrated to understand the complexities of those diverse emerging markets where the opportunities arise. Countries like China, Vietnam, India, South Africa and Nigeria (to name a few) are all culturally diverse, economically volatile and politically charged. To successfully navigate markets in those countries and to take advantage of opportunities in those markets, business must understand and be fluent in the cultural intricacies of those jurisdictions. Competition from local businesses is vast and local talent is scarce. So in order for any company to successfully engage in the market where opportunities arise, it will need to make space for a diverse employee base and build an environment which doesn’t just attract people from different backgrounds and experiences but is also able to retain them and, most importantly, allow them to contribute with those valuable differences that they bring to the table.

  1. Increased customer sophistication

In this world that we now live in, where information about any given product or service is readily available, anyone who is looking for something specific, original or unique will be able to find it.

This in turn makes it difficult for companies. Not only do businesses have to closely and fully understand their customers, they also need to be able to differentiate themselves from any other company that is providing a similar service or product. As competition increases, companies cannot afford not to fully empathise and connect with their customers. Brand loyalty is a thing of the past and may not even exist in the new emerging middle classes. To satisfy a fickle client-base, teams and leader must work harder, first to attract an employee base that reflects this nuanced and diverse demand and then to retain and harness its value.

In order to do that, companies will require teams of people who reflect the diversity of their customer base. They will need to be closely connected to the customer and understand the nuances of individualised demands of millions of customers in order to deliver the requisite customer experience.

In addition, these teams will need to improve their empathy skills in order to better understand what customers want and how they want to be treated. As empathy is the main component of an inclusive environment, and inclusive team and leader will be better placed to take advantage of the diversity existing in that team and of those demanding sophisticated customers with highly individualised requirements.

  1. Innovation and Creativity

Innovation is the name of the game for any company. In fact, of 1500 CEOs surveyed in recent years, 75% put innovation as a top 3 priority for their business. Irrespective of the nature of your business, keeping up and staying ahead might be the difference between a company that survives and a company that doesn’t.

It will come as no surprise that the best way to innovate and create is to draw from a very diverse base. The wider you cast your net for new ideas, the better your chances for breakthrough innovation. Inviting and encouraging diverse thinking in your team is fundamental to any organisation that aims to garner new ideas. Leaders will need to become more self-aware in order to guard against groupthink in their midst and to ensure they aren’t blindsided by something that a more diverse environment would have identified as a risk or an opportunity.  Those who understand the greater benefits of being supported by a diverse range of thinkers (and the sacrifices that one’s ego must make in order to tolerate and, in fact, welcome dissent) stand to gain the most. A team that is diverse and is routinely freely speaking its mind will be better placed to spot those rare opportunities, develop new ideas and prevent poorly thought-through decisions.

  1. Change in Demographics and Talent

The world is becoming older, better educated and easier to transverse. In addition, the way people work and what they expect in return in terms of future opportunities, respect for life outside work and where and when they work has been undergoing a seismic shift.

The world’s change in demographic is unprecedent and is on our doorstep. According to a number of sources that monitor and routinely predict demographics, by 2020 (at the latest), those older than 65 will outnumber those under the age of 5. In fact, it is predicted that, by 2050, the world’s population of those over 65 will represent 15.6% of the global population (up from 10% today) and those under the age of 5 only 7.2%.  This will impact our workforce.

In addition, higher education in developing countries is becoming more accessible, generating a highly-educated, highly mobile educated workers, looking for opportunities elsewhere.

By way of example, it is estimated that, by 2030, China will generate more university graduates that the entire US workforce.  By 2020, India is predicted to produce four times as many graduates as the United States. Given where the educated workforce will be coming from, companies will need to be able to attract a vastly different person – from every perspective – and demonstrate and ability to retain them.

And when it comes to workplace expectations, the so-called Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) have a thing or two to say about this. Expected to represent 50% of the workforce in the UK (and 35% of the global workforce) by 2020, any business that chooses to ignore the demands of this generation does so at its perils.

SONY DSC

What are those demands, you ask? Generally speaking, Millennials have been seen to be the one generation that isn’t afraid to vote with their feet. An average stay for a Millennial at any given job is 18 months. Why do they leave? For better opportunities. Millennials, more so than other generations represented in the workforce find it ‘extremely important’ to have opportunities to learn and grow, to have good leaders and managers (defined by their own criteria including transparency, coaching, motivation and purpose), having an interest in the role and the type of work. They are not, necessarily, motivated by money alone.

These massive shifts in demographics and attitude require a very different approach to harnessing talent. Being mindful of diversity and how to attract and retain it plays a major role in a company’s ability to win or lose the ‘war on talent’.

The question for you is, do you have the right team to tackle these changes and succeed as a business? Do you have the diversity that you need to embrace the changes and opportunities or does your team look predominantly like you and is therefore at risk of being blindsided? If you don't have the requisite diversity on your team, ask yourself what’s missing and how you can attract and retain it. If you’re willing and able to make a change to prepare your team and company, the time to act is now!

The Gender Pay Gap

Guest blog by Jacqueline Heron

In the beginning

With one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe, in 2015 David Cameron set out to end this ‘scandal’ within a generation. In 2018, Theresa May said she wanted her government to end the ‘burning injustice’ of the gender pay gap.  As a first step, organisations with over 250 employees  published the gap in hourly pay between men and women on April 4th 2018. This will be an annual exercise.

It’s somewhat of a blunt instrument.  A company might have a gender pay gap if a majority of men are in top jobs, despite paying male and female employees the same amount for similar roles  - and there’s no adjustment for employees’ different roles, so CEOs are compared directly with PAs. Gaps can be skewed by a few high-earners.

However, everybody’s talking about it - from Boardroom to shareholders to customers and employees.  And what’s clear is that most of the UK's medium and large organisations pay women significantly less than men, and that there aren’t enough women in top paying jobs.  No surprises there but it’s useful to have it in black and white. And what we’re seeing so far, is that many organisations are recognising that this isn’t good enough and are publishing the actions they plan to take start closing those gaps. Since this will be an annual exercise, we can monitor their progress.  It’s a case of ‘what gets measured, gets done.’

The results are in

Of the 10,019 firms that submitted gender pay gap data  only 2,255 (22.5%) have a median women's hourly wage that is equal to or higher than that of men. The remaining 7,764 (77.5%) pay women less than men. Across the UK, men earned 18.4% more than women in April 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It impacts all industries: The construction sector reported the worst average median gender pay gap at 25%. This was followed by finance and insurance at 22% and somewhat surprisingly, education, with a pay gap of 20%.

And the gender pay gap becomes the gender pension gap

Older women are disproportionately affected, with those in their 50s experiencing an 18.6% pay gap, compared to 5.5% for women in their 20s.  This worsens as they reach pension age.  HMRC data has shown the gap between the amount of pension income received by men and women is widening. Women received just 37% of the total amount of income drawn from pensions last year, down from 39% in 2012-2013. Last year, women received £46.5bn in pension income, while men received £79.3bn.

The reasons are complex

Most industries fail to promote enough women. This is a global issue. McKinsey’s found that, whereas half of graduate entrants in American law firms were women, only one in five equity partners was. A study by SKEMA Business School in France found that, although women made up 52% of banking employees globally, only 38% of middle managers and 16% of executive committee members were women.

Men’s and women’s salaries start diverging from the childbearing years. Women pay a significant financial penalty for being parents. They may also play a non-parental care role – unpaid work looking after relatives, partners or friends with illnesses or disabilities. As a result, they are more likely to work in part time roles which are often lower paid with fewer opportunities for progression.

Structural discrimination plays a part. One in nine new mothers is dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly that she leaves, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Subtler biases favour men in hiring, performance reviews, pay and promotions. A study in 2016 by Warwick University found that, among workers who asked for pay rises, men were 25% more likely than women to be successful.

As does unconscious bias. Take academia, where studies have shown that unconscious bias comes into play when science faculty members receive applications from students with feminine names, judging women to be less competent and less hireable than a man with an identical CV.

 Working towards a solution

Companies should beware of kneejerk reactions and take time to diagnose what lies behind the numbers. They need to look at how they hire, how they pay, how they promote and ask the question: are our practices fair?

The case for diversity demonstrates a positive impact on the bottom line.  McKinsey found that companies in the bottom quartile for gender and ethnic diversity in leadership were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability. An analysis of the data shows that in companies where women are fairly or slightly overrepresented in the top pay band, the median gender pay gap shrinks relative to the composition of the company as a whole.

Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, Director of the Cambridge Judge Business School Women’s Leadership Centre says: "Whether it is because women are getting paid less for the work that they are doing or because women are not getting equal opportunities to get into positions where the pay level is high – it doesn’t matter what the reason is, but there is a gender pay gap and in most cases it’s an issue of equality and justice. In both cases it’s an issue of an imbalance of some sort."

We should be using the gender pay gap as a means to an end, focusing not solely on the outcome, but rather the lack of equality in opportunities for women.