Gender pay gap needs disinfectant of truth

There’s a saying that the truth gets better the further up the organisation it goes.

We all like good news in the workplace, and not just because it might be politically and financially advantageous. At a human level, good news propels us forward. Progress begets progress, and it can feel more energising and fulfilling to attach ourselves to things that are going well.

Such is our affection for good news that over time we have created a clever vocabulary designed to shield us from confronting the not-so-good news. Problems become challenges, and we gild reports to become brochures.

But hiding or talking around the truth keeps us stuck where we are. Or worse, we invest time and resources doing an excellent job of implementing the wrong solution.

Ultimately, in smudging or ignoring hard truths we miss an opportunity to identify what needs attention and why. After all, how can we find the impetus to fix a problem if we’ve found the comforting words to excuse it?

Reporting on New Zealand’s gender pay gap is a case in point.

In August, the Government released our gender pay gap number and not only has it not improved, it’s gone backwards, from 9.2 per cent to 9.3 per cent.

Just so we’re on the same page, gender pay gap does not mean equal pay for equal work – the same salary for doing same job. It is illegal to pay women and men different wages for doing the same work.

What we mean when we talk about the gender pay gap is how evenly the top salaries within an organisation are spread across men and women.

In fact, the gender pay gap is in many ways the measure of an organisation’s gender leadership gap. When there are equal numbers of men and women in senior, highly-paid positions, the gender pay gap closes.

There are many reasons why these gendered gaps emerge.

  • Unconscious or conscious bias in hiring and promoting women into leadership roles
  • Workplace cultures that make it difficult for new mums to return to work and continue to progress up the organisational structure
  • Occupational segregation: some roles are perceived as more suitable for one gender than another; often female-gendered roles have lower salaries
  • Paid parental leave policies that favour mothers and make it more difficult for fathers to share equally in parental leave access.

The reason it’s so important to get to the truth on our gender pay gap and to understand it, is simply this: When we calculate it honestly and speak about it truthfully, we are much more likely to design the right interventions to fix the problem.

This week, Westpac Bank shared its gender pay gap publicly. The team at Westpac is not proud of the bank’s number, but they are publishing it because Westpac wants to close its gender pay gap, not ignore it. And, Westpac’s leadership team acknowledges that some of the more systemic interventions needed to genuinely close the gap require time and help from others.

Westpac’s CEO is a member of Champions for Change, a group of CEOs and board chairs who represent more than 110,000 New Zealand employees. This coalition of private and public sector organisations is championing diversity and inclusion at all levels, and actioning a number of commitments to deliver progressive workplace cultures. Champion organisations include the likes of Spark, Genesis, Air NZ, Auckland Airport, Ports of Auckland, AUT, NZTE, Chorus and many more. The gender pay gap is rightly on their radar.

The interventions needed to close New Zealand’s historically impervious pay gap nationally can be categorised in three ways.

Near term – operational fixes: The low hanging fruit of operational practices organisations can address most quickly e.g. implementing flexible working policies, equal access to parental leave for both parents

Mid-term – addressing the system: Fostering and maintaining genuinely inclusive workplace cultures and preparing women to increase the representation of women and our tangata whenua on our company boards.

Longer term – shaping society: That is, evolving our blue/pink gendered subject and job biases to a new set of social norms e.g. how we educate in our schools to prepare our future workforce to be more naturally gender balanced

The truth is, while business can and will be accountable for much of the solution to our gender pay gap, our government colleagues will be required to also intervene, ensuring any closing of our pay gap is systemically supported to keep closing and remain closed.

The good news is when we’ve done this work, we will have men and women working genuinely together in leading and managing a diverse New Zealand workforce to excellence and a society where all of us feel at home and able to thrive.

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