The gender pay gap remains stubbornly high – too many women continue to face sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The introduction of gender pay gap reporting has helped ensure more organisations are taking steps to tackle inequality at work, but further action is needed.

The situation

Sex discrimination in the workplace has been unlawful for more than four decades, but it continues to be an issue. Sexual harassment, and pregnancy and maternity discrimination remain serious problems, with some recent high-profile claims. 

CIPD research shows that 4% of employees said they had been sexually harassed at work over the past three years. Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported that they were either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant (where others in their workplace were not), or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job. 

CIPD analysis found that the median gender pay gap among the employers submitting their gender pay gap data for the reporting year 2022/23 was 9.4%. In other words, for every pound a man earned, a woman earned approximately 91 pence. This is down on the 9.7% recorded for last year but is the same as the gender pay gap reported back in 2017/18, when large British employers were first required to disclose their gender pay gap data.

The reasons for the gap are complex and interrelated, and include economic, cultural, societal and educational factors: 

  • A lack of flexible working options.
  • Women being the main providers of unpaid caring responsibilities.
  • Occupational segregation.
  • The undervaluing of women’s work.
  • Pay discrimination. 

If not addressed, this gap not only disadvantages individuals, but means employers miss out on talent as they risk their reputation as a fair and inclusive employer. Gender pay gap reporting has brought transparency to workplace gender equality issues that need addressing, but it’s the action that follows that makes the real difference. 

Although there has been progress in female representation at the top of organisations, there’s still a long way to go until we can claim equality of opportunity in career progression based on gender. There has been notable progress, spurred on by the FTSE Women Leaders Review, the Hampton-Alexander review and the Davies Review, with the 40% voluntary target for Women on Boards met by FTSE 350 companies, three years in advance of the 2025 target and sitting at 42% in 2024. However, there’s still a lack of female representation in executive director positions compared to non-executive roles, meaning that women are still underrepresented in operational roles, so they don’t have the day-to-day influence on decision-making in UK business. The focus now needs to be on increasing the number of women in executive committee roles and their teams to build a strong pipeline of female talent for the future.

CIPD viewpoint

Any form of discrimination or harassment is totally unacceptable from a moral and legal standpoint – in society and at work. Many employers are likely to lose valuable female talent by default if they fail to treat complaints of harassment seriously, and/or if the culture is one in which issues are pushed under the carpet. 

Publishing gender pay gap data provides an ideal opportunity for organisations to examine the impact their people management and development practices have on equality of opportunity at work. 

However, publishing the data is not enough, as the figures only tell us if there’s a problem. The real value of the exercise lies in the interpretation of the data, the identification of the causes of the gap, and the action taken to address these at work. However, they need to receive the appropriate guidance and training, lead by example, treat people fairly and not tolerate inappropriate behaviour. 

A holistic approach to building a strong and sustainable female talent pipeline is essential. This requires the development of several supportive and inclusive strategies which reach out to female employees across the workforce (including flexible working, making career paths transparent, reviewing recruitment and selection processes, analysing your people data). Ultimately, we need to be taking a systemic approach, identifying and tackling the organisation’s culture, systems and processes that are preventing change on gender equality happening at the pace it’s required.

Actions for the UK Government

  • Ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has the necessary resources to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination at work by investigating – and acting against – employers breaking the law.
  • Help increase the uptake and range of flexible working opportunities across the economy by supporting the work of the Flexible Working Taskforce.  
  • Develop a challenge fund for businesses in frontline sectors to trial and track progress around flexible ways of working and the impact on business and employee metrics. 
  • Update parental leave policies to better reflect the changing nature of modern families, and progress gender equality at work. In particular, enhance the statutory paternity or partner offering to six weeks leave at or near the full rate of pay.

Recommendations for employers

  • Ensure there is a clearly communicated policy on dignity and respect at work, highlighting that there is zero tolerance of any form of discrimination and harassment.
  • Train all managers to manage people effectively, including on the importance of leading by example, proactively tackling conflict or inappropriate behaviour, and taking formal disciplinary action (where necessary).
  • Interrogate your people data. Employers need to look at every stage of the employee lifecycle to ensure that people management practices are fair and inclusive. For example, ascertain the number of men and women applying for each role and who gets the job, and look for any ‘cliff-edge’ points in careers when women tend to leave the organisation and examine insight from exit interviews.
  • Provide a narrative and action plan to provide context to gender pay gap figures and set realistic goals for improvement, reporting on the plan’s progress in subsequent reports.
  • Wherever possible, advertise jobs as flexible using the tagline Happy to talk flexible working.
  • Improve workplace flexibility for all by designing more flexible jobs and training line managers to manage flexible workers.
  • Enhance parental leave offerings wherever possible, giving families more choice over how they manage work and caring responsibilities. Create a supportive culture where people feel able to take up the provisions on offer.

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