Is ‘equal pay’ between the sexes the new barometer of a good place to work?

Is ‘equal pay’ between the sexes the new barometer of a good place to work?

I don’t usually ‘do lunch’. It gobbles the day. But last week I made an exception for what turned out to be some fascinating, thought-provoking face-time with representatives from Catalyst, the NGO dedicated to ‘Changing workplaces, changing lives’ – encouraging diversity in business so that women get fair opportunities in recruitment, development and advancement.

The gob-smacking stat which made me break the no-lunch rule is enough to put any woman off her spaghetti Napoletana, though. What Catalyst does best is research – and one of their recent reports revealed that the impact of earning differences between women and men amounts to a staggering $ 431,000 (£692,000) over a working life. (That, as we all know, is the price of a very nice house, in many towns.) Even in their first jobs, straight out of business school, women MBAs earn on average $ 4,600 per annum less than their male colleagues – meaning that the glass ceiling is in place from Day One. All this in the same week as equalities minister Jo Swinson said women should be able to ask their male colleagues what they earn. A snap poll of Telegraph readers about her wishes show the majority don’t agree with her.

But something needs to be done. Later down the career line, Catalyst’s in-depth research revealed what many of us have a hunch about: that men still get more promotions than women. And as women climb the career ladder, the pay cheque disparity really kicks in: in 2008, for instance, when a man got a salary increase, it amounted to an average of 21 per cent. Women? A measly 2 per cent. And what I find very disturbing is that the ‘hot jobs’ – the juicy, high-profile, big-budget projects – aren’t going to women, either: in their December 2012 study, men were observed as leading projects with larger budgets – twice the size of those with women in charge – with bigger teams. (The teams headed by women were a third of the size of those headed by men.) Partly – another personal hunch, confirmed – it’s because women are running up against barriers in a way most men don’t: the old school tie network, it seems (or at least, ‘informal networks’, as Catalyst puts it) is still in place. But – and isn’t this the ultimate Catch-22? – turns out women also had a lack of successful role models, too, to help fuel their aspirations…

Any woman reading this, of course, would be entitled to feel like throwing in the towel – as if any effort to haul herself up that already-steep ladder is a waste of time. Which in turn would fuel the vicious circle… But encouragingly, what Catalyst sees is that there are many more ‘enlightened’ companies now getting with the programme and embracing a more ‘diverse’ approach to career advancement: they’re working with many of them globally, and even offer a ‘symbol’ (and awards) to companies which have been shown to fulfill their criteria for ‘fairness’ (of opportunity, pay and promotion). That’s something for women to look for, surely, on a potential employer’s website – and I really like Catalyst’s rule that a company doesn’t get its award unless the CEO turns up to collect it: ‘Change has to come from the top down,’ observes Catalyst’s Sybille Rupprecht. ‘That’s the only way it works, and an enlightened CEO who encourages a culture of diversity is vital to the advancement of women within an organisation.’

We had a long discussion about the fact companies which don’t advance women are actually missing a huge trick. What’s good for women is good for business. Having women in senior positions within an orgnisation tends to lead to a culture of openness and improved communication. (My workplace observation is that women are much readier to share information with others than male counterparts.) And any consumer-facing company which doesn’t tap into female executives’ innate understanding of what other women – who make so many of the purchasing decisions – want, needs their (probably male) CEO’s head examined.

As Sybille observed, the writing’s surely on the wall for any company that doesn’t shift its attitude to female advancement, since talent votes with its feet – and is likely to head to more receptive, encouraging pastures if doors start opening with their present employer. And let’s face it: with 31 per cent of chief executives polled in Price Waterhouse Cooper’s 15th Annual CEO Survey reporting that a lack of skilled talent had ‘prevented them from pursuing market opportunities’, that soon turns into a bottom-line issue. Which means underpaying women – and failing to give us opportunities – doesn’t even equate to financial ‘savings’. (Even if it was, on any level, excusable. Which, of course, it’s not.)

It’s funny: until this one lunch I’d never truly thought of myself as a feminist – more of an ‘equalist’, believing that everyone should be entitled to the same opportunity and to prove themselves and get on, purely on merit. But now I’ve seen the data in black and white that the opportunities – and the rewards – are still so very far from fair, by the time coffee came round I felt like a born-again suffragette, frankly. Grateful that Catalyst is changing workplaces, and changing lives, and chipping away at the glass ceiling. With an ice-pick in one hand, and a fistful of data in the other.

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