Is the glass ceiling much lower than we realised?

Source: NHE May/June 18

It is astonishing that so little attention has been given to the publication of the gender pay gap in the NHS – especially when figures suggest that if we don’t address low pay imbalances, the issue will become incredibly hard to shift, argue Kirstie Stott, director at The Inspiring Leaders Network, and Dean Royles, director of HR and organisational development at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

The deadline for the publication of the gender pay gap has come and gone. There didn’t seem to be that much fuss in the end. There was some coverage about the organisations that published on the last day (apparently to bury bad news) and those that failed to meet the deadline. In fairness, some publications have tried to pick the bones out of what the data tells us, but no real sense that the publication of the gaps was a seminal moment for employees and employers.

That is such a shame. These were the first reports of their kind and, without them, not many would have appreciated how big the gender pay gaps are. Retail sectors, manufacturing, airlines and transport all have big gaps. In the public sector too, a sector often criticised for its ‘political correctness,’ health, education and government departments all reported gaps.

Prior to the publication of the reports the coverage was more pronounced: the Carrie Gracie story at the BBC had lots of media coverage, although the media often confused equal pay with gender pay gaps. Publication of the gaps have rightly led to some focus on higher pay, about the need for better gender balance on boards where all the evidence points to better decision-making and more effective businesses. The NHS has a target for 50:50 representation on boards by 2020.

But it is astounding that there has been so little attention to the gender pay gap and low pay. The European Commission argues that the gender pay gap has far-reaching implications: since women’s earnings over a lifetime are over 18% lower than men’s, these lower earnings result in lower pensions. As a result, elderly women are more likely to face poverty. In total, 22% of women aged 65 and over are at risk of poverty compared to 16% on men.

There has been limited progress closing the gender pay gap over the last five years; as a society, we will suffer the consequences for generations. It will be incredibly hard to shift the gender pay gap if we don’t address low pay and identify what traps women into lower pay rates with the same degree of focus we give to equal pay for senior roles and better balance on our boards in the public and private sectors.


We believe there are two key areas of focus. One societal: why is such low value given to essential roles like childcare, educational support and social care? And one organisational: how can employers increase flexible working to provide more opportunities in the middle and at the top of the organisations? The NHS gender pay gaps show that in the upper earnings quartile there are approximately two women for every man. At the lowest-earning quartile, this increases to five or six women for every man. A massive difference. Is a lack of flexible working opportunities in the middle of organisations preventing women from progressing?

The Modern Families Index (2016) suggests that seniority in roles allows flexibility. Nearly 80% of those surveyed earning £50,000 to £70,000 reported that they had access to flexible working, whilst in contrast only 50% of those earning less than £30,000 did.

It also suggests that millennial parents aged 18-37 are most likely to work full-time and share caring responsibilities. However, it is also this generational group who struggle to maintain this balance and are most likely to consider a downshift in role and take a pay cut for better balance, because they rank flexibility in their work over promotion and pay.

Employers need to consider how work will need to change to meet these evolving expectations and support more young women with families to reach their potential and growth. Nationally, policymakers will need to consider how they can enhance equal parental rights and childcare sharing, and redesign the traditional 9-5 that doesn’t fit today’s society.

Flexible working not only increases employee engagement and wellbeing, it can increase productivity at work and can also reduce associated costs. Incorporating flexible working into talent management and recruitment and retention strategies is essential in today’s competitive recruitment market. And that is before we feel any ‘Brexit effect.’

There is an increasing number of women categorised as highly qualified working in the UK today; the vast majority of those women want the opportunity to work flexibly. With a gender pay gap being reported across industry sectors, it’s imperative that we are able to nurture and retain these women as our future leaders, enabling them to firstly stay in their roles, contribute to the labour market, manage societal commitments and, importantly, to grow and develop, be promoted and increase pay earnings in line with men.

However, although better than some, the NHS struggles to implement flexible working policies – and where it has been embedded, variations in practice are common even within the same services. It is important to note that flexible working is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but having the conversations and embedding a culture of acceptance is a good start. We can all play a role in encouraging that debate.

In order to close the gender pay gap we need to begin to develop a flexible female talent pipeline. Promoting the top of the leadership structure will have a positive short-term gain, but it is a sticking plaster. We urgently need to start to address the lack of progression in lower-paid roles in comparison to men and to make a commitment to bridge the gap for the next generation of women.

We talk about the glass ceiling in senior leadership being a barrier to progression for women, but what if the glass ceiling is even lower than we thought?


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