Flexible working for both men and women – the key to closing the gender gap

The issue of gender inequality in the workplace is one which has troubled people for a long time.

Despite it being made illegal in 1970 to pay women less favourably than men doing the same job the gender pay gap is still a problem, with some suggesting it will be with us for a long time. Two thirds of AAT’s members are women, and we feel that the gender pay gap is an important issue, so AAT invited representatives from organisations such as Standard Chartered Bank and Business in the Community, as well as publications including Pay and Benefits Magazine and Working Mums to our headquarters for a roundtable discussion on how employers can tackle the gap once and for all.

Parents and careers

One reason many people suggest the gender pay gap exists is the fact that mothers are more likely to take time off to have and look after children. AAT launched some research on this theme, which found that over half of mothers feel that having children has significantly impacted on their careers. Mothers say they have been passed over for promotion, denied a pay rise after giving birth, and in one of the most shocking findings, 24% of people believed that the gender pay gap should be bigger for mothers.

To change the culture where this can be believed about mothers, flexible working should be encouraged and normalised for all workers of both genders.  If more employees are allowed to work flexibly, it will be less likely that others will see flexible working as just for parents or people who are less ambitious.

Delegates at AAT’s roundtable also suggested that organisations need to start judging employees on their output and productivity, rather than the time they spend at their desks. In many cases, people can achieve as much by working a five hour day, rather than an eight hour day, and some parts of the world have begun to adopt shorter working days.

This change in culture can happen from the top of organisations, with senior personnel demonstrating that they also work flexibly and don’t simply value employees being at their desk all the time. Some organisations have moved to letting their employees pick the hours that are best for them, which would be a help for mothers if more employers adopt the practice.

Building networks

Another suggestion for closing the pay gap is for women to join and build more networks with others. Some attendees shared their experiences where they found it more difficult to network when their colleagues were mostly men, because of things such as a heavy drinking culture, or inappropriate behaviour. Previous research AAT has done showed that some women working in the finance sector feel that there is still an ‘old boys club’ mentality, among people at senior levels of their organisation.

In this situation it can be challenging for women to build up their networks and their contacts with the people who may affect their career and their pay. Therefore, the delegates agreed about the importance of more experienced women becoming mentors to younger women and creating a ‘new girl’s network’ to challenge the old boys’ network.

It was agreed that these networks should take shape with women at the top of organisations helping those below who are less experienced, with things such as mentoring programmes, and also supporting them if they need to challenge sexist behaviour. Delegates also agreed that men should be brought into conversations too, as it will be harder for networks to succeed and structural changes to be made without the support of all members of workplaces.

Shared Parental Leave

Another issue is that despite Shared Parental Leave having been brought in last year, there has been low take up. One delegate suggested that the mind-set not is there among UK men, with Western society traditionally emphasising that a good mother takes care of the children, while a father goes out to work, which is why many men may be reluctant to take longer periods of paternity leave.

Taking shared parental leave also doesn’t always make financial sense. When the male partner earns more than the female, many families will not be able to afford to have the man take a long period of leave and for the woman to return to work. A suggestion to fix this is that parental leave should be made separate so that it doesn’t come down to a choice between the mother and father of who goes back to work.  As one delegate said, sometimes women feel as though they are giving up something if they do not utilise full maternity leave to be with their child, and it shouldn’t be the case that the women has to gift her partner more leave.

Can Millennials make the change?

Some delegates suggested that millennials, younger people now in their 20s and 30s, may be the ones to make the cultural changes that will be essential in helping to close the gender pay gap. Millennials want to work differently, and value greater work/life balance over working long hours for career progression. They want more flexible working and their driving force is no longer just money.  They are not attracted to the old-fashioned 9 to 5 work regime. As these millennials move through the workplace into senior levels, they will be able to build this thinking into organisational culture, so that things which can help close the gender pay gap, such as more flexible working, and higher take up of shared parental leave, become the norm.

What do you think employers and employees could do to tackle the gender pay gap? Please do leave your comments below.

Jude Obi is AAT's Assistant Media Relations Manager.

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