Analysis: employers can use gender pay gap reporting as an opportunity to explore dynamics and structures in their organisations

Gender pay gap legislation will require employers to publish the average difference in pay between men and women in their organisations from next year. The process will involve practical elements such as the availability of data on pay and working arrangements but also some soul-searching as employers begin to delve into why their gender pay gap exists, why it matters and what – if anything - they are going to do about it.

Diversity and inclusion have been fairly standard buzzwords in corporate discourse in recent years, but do employers understand what this means, over and above a legal and ethical obligation to treat people fairly and give equal pay for equal work? Paying people different wages for the same job is discrimination and most employers would be loath to fall foul of this, not least because to do so would render them subject to legal sanction through the courts.

But the gender pay gap is not just discrimination; it is something less obvious and more difficult to address. The gender pay gap in Ireland is estimated at around 14% and varies across age profiles, industrial sector, occupation and other factors. It is reflective of differences in working patterns between men and women largely resulting from unequal distributions of unpaid labour such as child and elder care, housework, and domestic work.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Sonya Lennon from Dress for Success on Ireland's gender pay gap

At an organisational level, a gender pay gap may be narrower or wider than the national figure depending on, for example, the proportion of women in senior roles, gender differences in bonus pay and promotions. A company might be comprised primarily of women but might be surprised to uncover a wide gap because, upon examination of their organisational structure, the gender breakdown in employees starts to look a great deal more stark as one moves up the occupational ladder.

Women are still the primary caregivers in Irish society, both by necessity and choice. While there have been huge societal changes around family structure, the caring role of men and labour market participation, the legacy of the cultural norm of male primary-breadwinner female primary-caregiver remains. It is, for many families, the preferred division of labour.

Childcare in Ireland is among the most expensive in the OECD, reducing the financial and practical incentive for both parents in dual-earner families, or lone parents, to work. Women in general take on the lion's share of unpaid caring and domestic tasks, regardless of their labour market status. Sectors dominated by women pay less, are more precarious and offer fewer opportunities for advancement, partly due to the relative flexibility they might offer over working time but also connected to the historic undervaluing of women's work. Most of these complex structural factors lie far beyond the responsibility remit of the average employer.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Orla O'Connor from the National Women's Council of Ireland on the evidence about the existence of a significant gender pay gap in Ireland.

What employers can do is see gender pay gap reporting as an opportunity to explore dynamics and structures in their organisations. It should spur an examination of recruitment, selection and performance management systems to ensure that unconscious bias, language, job designs, or approaches are not unwittingly making it more difficult for women to succeed.

It should open up conversations around flexible working not just for mothers but for fathers, for whom research shows employers to be less accepting of their requests for support. It should generate strategic discussion around grievance processes, culture and values and honesty with regards to acceptable behaviours. It offers the potential to improve employer branding through openness, transparency, and a willingness to address exclusion.

But the key factor in determining whether any of this happens is if decision-makers in organisations appreciate why a gender pay gap should be addressed. Nobody wants unequal pay, but more people are broadly accepting of other gender inequities. There remains significant public misunderstanding about what the gender pay gap is as well as scepticism about both its causes and the desirability of policies to tackle it. A recent UK study found that one-fifth of men surveyed believed the gender pay gap was "fake news".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, report on the gender pay divide and the reasons behind it

A gender pay gap represents loss of opportunity, both for employers and for women who wish to build their careers. It means wasted education, skills and experience, less financial independence, and a greater likelihood of poverty in old age for women. Financial dependence and poverty are connected to other disadvantageous outcomes both for women and children. It relegates fathers to breadwinning roles that may not always be desired or possible.

Addressing it does not mean undermining caring roles nor should it seek to create a value system based on labour market participation alone. On the contrary, now that the nature of remote, flexible and hybrid work patterns are being re-imagined in the wake of Covid-19, there has never been a better time to explore avenues for real and meaningful diversity.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ