Gapsquare Blog

Bringing your pay gap policy to life: A public sector approach

Posted by Eve Russell on 11-Oct-2018 15:19:07
Gapsquare are proud to share an article by our partner Eve Russell, a HR professional with over 10 years experience working in the NHS, and who has recently spent time with the Harvard community developing her insightful perspective around equality and diversity. Below Eve shares her thoughts on how the public sector can move forward on the pay gap. 


The Gender Pay Gap - What next for the public sector? 

As we know, in April of this year regulations came into force requiring any business with 250+ employees to publish data relating to its Gender Pay Gap (GPG).  The public sector has had to be ahead of the game, with a GPG publication date of March – although all the other rules applied in exactly the same way. The results were unexpected: according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), men earned 18.4% more than women as of April 2017. Or viewed a different way, of the 10,000+ employers who met the reporting deadline, 78% paid men more than women, on average . The Public Sector complies with this clear trend and, whereas in the private sector the gender pay gap has decreased in the last twenty years,  the public sector is just beginning to tackle the issue head on. Given the World Economic Forum’s projection that it could take a staggering 217 years to close the GPG, it’s great to see some proactive work in the sector and I look forward to seeing this progress. This article seeks to explore what’s going wrong, and what needs to be done to put it right.

Fundamentally, the GPG exists in the Public Sector for the same range of reasons that it exists in the Private Sector but the publication of GPG data is shining a light into a space that has previously been occupied by a sense, a feeling, a mood that was difficult to quantify. Now we have a position whereby this published, publicly accessible data gives us all an entry-ticket into an important but difficult, conversation. To deliver meaningful change and to chip away at that 217 year timeframe for closing the gap requires an open and honest dialogue about what’s wrong and what needs to change, and then real and tangible action to make those changes. Many organisations are talking in an earnest way about the need to do better, but are we all clear about what “better” means?

To move the debate forward, we need to ask: Why are women not progressing into senior/highly paid roles at the same rate as men?

Several explanations are often given to this problem, many of which focus on the idea that women are making different choices (to work in support/caring focussed roles and/or to work flexibly or part time and/or to negotiate less assertively around salary) and therefore the GPG is ok because it is reflective of the different choices men and women tend to make. This is particularly relevant in the public sector where a significant proportion of employment relates to the provision of care. These explanations are not enough however, not least because they do not acknowledge the cultural, social and systemic structures that drive these perceived differences in decision-making. To move into a constructive, supportive and transformative space in relation to GPG, Public and Private sector organisations alike need to unravel the ways in which they expect people to think and behave, and unpack all of their systems, to create an organisational culture and structure that will facilitate change for a diverse range of employees.

Planning for the future webinar

Many of the interventions and actions that are being promoted as the solution to the GPG problem are not new: Flexible working policies, Recruitment and Selection processes that are free from bias, promotional practises that are based on objectively measured criteria, equality & diversity, inclusion, unconscious bias training and development, Campaigns designed to attract returners, the list goes on. These tools and practices are fantastic, and without them the GPG might be even worse, but they are also prominent in organisations with significant GPGs, suggesting they are not the panacea.

The Public Pay Gap – The Cultural Solution

"The public sector is actually really well positioned to be at the vanguard... as so often the policy provision in place is already great, the transformation required is in bringing the policy provision to life"

Arguably, because the problem is systemic and cultural, so too the solution must be. Many changes are needed, for example:

  • Letting go of the assumptions that frame our behaviour (I work in the NHS, and on introducing myself that way have been asked “oh, are you a Nurse or a Secretary?” never “oh, are you a Surgeon?”)
  • Recognising that caring for children/older relatives/ourselves has to be a shared responsibility (it’s not “special” when a man does the school run/the ironing/the myriad domestic tasks that so often fall to women and consume so much time and emotional energy)
  • Freeing ourselves of the labelling, conditioning and judgement that is so often gendered (how often are men asked whether they feel guilty about working?)

Organisations have a significant share of the responsibility for driving change and improvement in the gender inclusion space and awareness of these issues is an essential element of this work. This sounds like a huge and daunting task, but the key to success will be in taking small incremental steps.

How to bring policy to life

The public sector is actually really well positioned to be at the vanguard here, as so often the policy provision in place is already great, the transformation required is in bringing the policy provision to life:

Not just in policy, but in practice. We need to see men and women at all levels working in a genuinely flexible, less than full time way. There has been interesting press coverage recently around the TimeWise research into “Flexism” which describes with plausibility the true impact of taking up flexible working “options”, especially at senior levels. Despite the policy provision in place, employees who work flexibly often feel so disproportionately grateful to be afforded such opportunities that they make numerous career-limiting compromises and often feel inferior when compared with full time colleagues. Instead, we need to consider the work of Phylis Moen (and many others) on embracing “Flexicurity” at all levels and recognising that working less than full time is not a sign that someone is less committed or likely to progress and succeed. Culturally we have a long way to go in redefining what success looks like, but organisations can help to shift the dial by enabling conversations about flexible working and then truly supporting those employees who take up such options. Quite apart from anything else, there is mounting evidence that it’s actually great for productivity too, and becomes another piece of armoury within the retention toolkit – especially valuable within the Public sector which rarely has the option of offering financial retention incentives.

Gapsquare newsletter

There is a reason that the hashtag #HeforShe and many others like it are so ubiquitous: men are increasingly recognising that they have a role to play here, and are often the best placed to convince other men about the compelling case for, and benefits of, creating an inclusive workplace. Michael Kimmel’s brilliant TED talk is a great example of this. This is not about saying the right things, it’s about acting in the right ways: take action when something feels wrong, ask about the composition of panels and meetings and change those which are not representative before participating, sponsor women in the organisation to facilitate their progression. Remembering the old adage: the standard you walk past is the standard you accept, men must now play their part in creating the change that is needed and – crucially – organisations must support and encourage them in so doing.

Appoint more women (yes, it’s that simple!); promote more women, ensure that women are represented on interview panels, committees, throughout all of the organisation’s decision-making processes. Don’t dismiss targets and quotas completely; they can be a very compelling way to drive change and send a clear message (as an example, the NHS 50/50 by 2020 campaign, aiming to have gender balanced Boards by 2020, is already having a positive impact: this year’s HSJ top trust chief executives list were all held by women). Fundamentally, public sector organisations need to ask themselves: What could you do differently to ensure that men and women are taking up opportunities in a way that is commensurate with their talent? Be open and honest about your intentions in the space.

Redefine the Learning and Development offer: 
Recognise that this is not about women needing to change – lighten up on the training designed to help women build resilience or define their personal brand, and instead focus on raising awareness of bias and how behaviour can affect performance. Iris Bohnet’s seminal book What Works is an inspiring and energising read in this area.

Listen to the next generation:
The much-maligned millennials have grown up in a climate which is far more attuned to this dynamic, and their perspective, of course, is different. Do not write them off, but instead take this valuable opportunity to understand their needs and perspective and think about how this can be accommodated but also learned from (yes, they absolutely do have things to teach us). I have been hugely encouraged by stories I’ve heard recently of mixed gender groups of students and young people talking about gender issues (Is single-sex socialising (a la Presidents Club) ever acceptable? The answer was no!): enlightened.

Working life, and leadership, in the Public sector can be tricky: the financial pressures are (often) intense, the resources are (often) limited, and the political dynamics bring an added complexity. However for public sector organisations, reporting on and understanding the GPG is a true opportunity. Taking action now, in a meaningful and authentic way, has the promise of driving true organisational improvement, increased employee engagement and enhanced productivity. Why wait?



Director, Eve Russell HR Limited September 2018


Eve is a HR Professional wide-ranging experience, including over 10 years in the NHS.  Most recently, she was Associate Director of HR at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and is now working with NHS Improvement as Workforce Improvement Lead. Eve is a Fellow of the CIPD, and holds Post Graduate qualifications in HR Management and Strategic Workforce Planning.

Eve also works independently, supporting businesses and individuals to solve complex people problems through her company Eve Russell HR Limited.  She has a particular interest in gender, and in creating inclusive and diverse organisations, having spent time studying this area in more depth within the Harvard community during a career break in 2017/2018.



Tags: public sector