In April 2018, the UK government required all UK based companies employing over 250 members of staff to publish data on how much they pay their male and female employees, in order to establish whether men were paid more than women on average. Over 10,000 companies submitted their data before the deadline, though some have allegedly failed to do so and could potentially face punitive measures.
As the deadline drew closer and more and more companies uploaded their data to the government portal, media interest in the story piqued, and several female MPs leveraged the global #MeToo phenomenon to start the #PayMeToo campaign.
However, the study itself, the media response and the #PayMeToo campaign have all come under scrutiny, as critics question whether we can draw any meaningful conclusions from what has been described as a “crude” use of statistics.
These criticisms, combined with the sensitivity of the issue in the current international climate, present the Communications leader with a range of important considerations when announcing and positioning their own results.
While the underlying sentiment behind the Gender Pay Gap reporting is obviously to be applauded, there are still significant concerns with the methodology, which can leave the Corporate Affairs team in a difficult position.
When reporting on this issue, the mainstream media on the whole has been poor and indicative of the recent trend towards partisan, audience-pleasing reporting. Rather than in-depth, mature discussions on the findings and the potential reasons behind them, we instead have been presented with content driven by sensationalist headlines calling out companies with high-figure pay gaps that tends to reaffirm existing points of view.
As the data does not compare employees in like-for-like roles, and medians and means are easily skewed by a handful of high-salaried workers, there is plenty of leeway for “spin, misinterpretation and counterproductive responses” as The Economist points out. Such conditions suit present day media suppliers as they are able to write bold, enticing headlines based on tenuous statistics for an audience that increasingly demands ideology-affirming content.
However, challenging the statistics themselves – and questioning altogether the existence of the Gender Pay Gap – is likely to add fuel to the fire, as we saw in the recent viral Channel 4 News interview with newly-famed clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. His calm, academic and research-based response to various gender related issues has proved highly controversial within some circles. The vitriol from both sides in response to this issue perhaps epitomises just how entrenched people have become in polarized points of view and their unwillingness to consider both sides of a debate.
This means that, even if there are valid reasons for poor, top-level numbers in the report, the Communications leader needs to be careful not to appear too defensive as this could be interpreted in the media as making excuses, or criticising the ethos behind the initiative itself. Instead they need to understand the factors driving the results internally and position this in the wider context of their business values and practices.
In the context of the media minefield above, communicating around the submitted Gender Pay Gap figures poses several issues.
For companies who pride themselves on social responsibility, gender equality and equal employment opportunities, and strive for leadership positions around these issues, a high pay gap figure has the potential to undermine the previous goodwill they have accrued among their key stakeholder groups. If the data uncovers findings that call into question the alignment between actual pay practises and corporate values, companies could be at significant reputational risk.
A communications leader in this position must establish a workable strategy in response to the announcement, as there is a strong chance they will be challenged and criticised for failing to match their values. They also need to consider how future campaigns may be perceived through the lens of these results, as they could face accusations of hypocrisy if the two are not aligned. As the connecting leader within the company, it is their job to ensure the company’s positioning on this matter is coordinated, from the CEO down.
The timing of releasing the figures, particularly if less than favourable, will also have to be taken into consideration. Hundreds of companies elected to wait until deadline day, perhaps opting for a safety in numbers approach. Others, including airline companies Ryanair, chose to release theirs – which was considerably higher than the average at 71.8% – the day before the deadline. It is highly unlikely that this was by accident.
On the one hand, releasing the results the day before the deadline could be seen as a tactical mistake: the media hype around the Gender Pay Gap was at its greatest at this time, and Ryanair found itself high up the news agenda. On the other, had Ryanair released the results months before, its striking pay gap figure may have been used as a comparator in articles discussing the pay gaps of other companies, therefore increasing mentions of the brand in a negative light.
Of the top 10 UK companies with the biggest gender pay gap, only Ryanair (8th) stands out as a household name that most would recognise, rendering it the most obvious one to call-out. Perhaps the “safety in numbers” approach that others also appeared to adopt as companies rushed to meet the deadline was in fact Ryanair’s strongest play.
Regardless of the timing of the announcement of the results, the Communications leader should have internal visibility over the results as early as possible so they can review the underlying drivers and put measures in place to show they are addressing any issues, which may help mitigate criticism around the announcement.
One of the findings that we can derive with some certainty from the Gender Pay Gap figures is that, in most industries, men occupy more of the higher salaried positions than women. At easyJet, for example, 94% of the pilots happen to be men, earning an average salary of £92,400, while 69% of the cabin crew are women, earning an average of £24,800. What this exposes is not a pay-related discrimination issue (which would be illegal), but much broader issues involving recruitment practises and the “genderization” of jobs in society.
The opportunity presented here for communications professionals is to highlight – where applicable – what the company is doing to tackle this industry-wide societal problem. In the mining industry, for example, companies such as BHP have received reputational windfalls through funding scholarships for young women seeking to study STEM subjects in further education, with the long-term goal of addressing the sector-wide gender imbalance. This holistic, long term approach is likely to do more for a company’s reputation over time than a short-term recruitment drive to achieve greater gender balance.
When obligated by a government to publish data that might not necessarily paint their company in the best light, communications professionals find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The combative approach of challenging the veracity of the study or the conclusions that can be drawn may in fact result with the company in question spending longer than liked in the spotlight, particularly in today’s headline-driven media.
Tactically, communications professionals can consider the timing and tone of the messaging accompanying the data submission – as well as how to respond to any incurred criticism. But from a strategic viewpoint, an opportunity presents itself for a company to revisit its “Social Contract” – the relationship it has with society – and pioneer the long overdue discussions around equal opportunities for men and women in industry. Once the dust settles and the media hype dies down, it is companies that adopt this strategy that will establish leadership positions in a debate that is surely here to stay.
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