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Inequalities, discrimination and the pay gap

Image of Cinzia Priola

Can HR play a role in fostering workplace inclusion and equality?

For some of us concerned with workplace inequalities and discrimination, the summer of 2017 has been characterised by two events that have generated large media attention. The first was the leak to the media of a Google’s ‘manifesto’, later solely attributed to a Google software engineer who was subsequently dismissed by the company. The 10 page-long manifesto argued that the gender pay gap is not the result of workplace discrimination and that the diversity efforts of corporations were vain because the lack of women in leadership positions and in technology in general is, in part, the result of biological (thus unchangeable) differences between women and men in relation to their preferences and abilities. While Google executives distanced themselves from the opinions of ‘one or few’ employees, the US department of Labor had, earlier in the year, found that Google was characterised by a systemic culture of discrimination and a consistent and enduring gender pay gap. Furthermore, many academic and commentators have described the document as “the Silicon Valley mindset” (quote attributed to Vivek Wadhwa). 

The second events that mirrored the Google case in the UK was the publication of the 2016/2017 BBC salary list for their ‘stars’ earning over £150,000 pa. The list exposed a striking gender gap with the highest paid man being paid approximately £2,250,000 while the highest paid woman earns less than £400,000 (two-thirds of men stars are paid over £150,000 compared to one third of women). While the BBC revealed that the gender pay gap across the company is actually lower, at 10%, than the national average, at more than 18%, what subsequently emerged in the media is, once more, the blaming of women for their lower pay and lower presence in leadership positions. Decades of academic research showing evidence of structural gender, race and class (among others) discrimination, across all types of businesses and in different societies, does not appear to have had any effect on the minds and actions of business decision makers. As the chairman of GSK and a government adviser on equal pay, Sir Philip Hampton, voiced what many more company leaders are also likely to believe, that women are less proactive in asking for promotions and pay increase and that it is, therefore, themselves who are to blame. Women are blamed because they aren’t doing enough to put themselves forward for top positions but, as experiential evidence suggest, they are also blamed when they do put themselves forward, because they are too aggressive and don’t follow their gender expectations. The lack of willingness among politicians and business leaders to deeply engage with the structural inequalities of our society is disconcerting as well as worrying. 

The gender pay gap 

Gender inequality and the gender pay gap are social issues that, despite decades of equality legislation have not been addressed. The current gender pay gap is approximately 20% (women earn approximately 80 for every 100 of men’s earnings), with significant differences across job types and some geographical variations between and across countries in the western world. Pay gap variations are also exacerbated when gender is intersected with race, disability and age, among other factors, with disabled black women experiencing the wider pay gap. Women are penalised in their career because they are perceived as less ambitious, less risk-taker and less committed to a sustained career. While some (as the Google software engineer author of the ‘manifesto’) may believe that these are biological differences, research has shown than women (as well as men) are actually influenced by society’s expectations about what is appropriate for a woman and for a man and, as a consequence, are praised when they behave accordingly to gender norms and are admonished when they do not. When a leading shoe company such as Clarks calls its range of girl shoes “Dolly babe” and the equivalent range of boy shoe “Leader” what message is that transmitting to a young girl? When such sexist messages are consistently and continuously perceived by boys and girls from an early age, how much more effort is needed from a girl to demonstrate that she can be a leader as good as the boy who has been told that he is one all along? 

The one biological difference that acts to women’s disadvantage in the business world is their ability to give birth; because of this they have been historically allocated the role of main carer of children and the household. While the family model of the male breadwinner and the house-wife has been outmoded in the West for a long time, this still influences the perception of women at work and in society. Even when women are equally contributing to an organisation’s success, they are generally still treated differently from their male colleagues (e.g. in terms of pay as well as opportunities) and need to work harder to demonstrate their worth. Furthermore, while recognising that in some cases caring responsibilities may affect women’s (and some men) performance in the workplace, in giving birth and raising children, women contribute to society as much as they do to their family, still this role isn’t recognised and supported for its economic and social benefits. Politician, social commentators and the media can exercise pressure on educators and the public and expose them to confronting the effects of rewarding one dominant identity and one dominant way of being (that one of the middle class white man). School curricula and wide education programmes should include the teaching and learning of the effects of stereotyping, of sexism, racism, ableism, classism and so on, encouraging reflection and debates. This is certainly not the magic solution to the problem but greater reflection by all, encourages more to change. 

A question of ethics and responsibility 

Moving away from categorisations of women as caring and relational, of disabled as less capable and more dependent, of lesbian as butch, of black people as angry and work-shy (as examples) is and should be a social process. In the workplace it should be supported by an open engagement with differences and with alternatives to the masculine, white, middle-class ways of being and work. Inequalities are perpetuated because different identities are ignored and compared to the one that is predominant. An ethics of inclusion is about a relational engagement with the individual as woman, black, L-G-B-T-Q, disabled and so on, NOT as ‘not-man’, ‘not-white’, ‘not-heterosexual’, ‘not-able’ and so on. In the workplace only when managers and workers recognise that they treat women as ‘other than men’, disabled as ‘other than able’ and so forth they can start a process of reflection and change. Academic research into stereotyping, discriminations, inequalities and inclusion has attempted to disrupt these processes and encourage change actions, however its result has often been the promotion and pay increase of the professor (often a white man) who has published the research, rather than a social and organisational change. I feel that HR can play a key role in stimulating this reflection and acting to break stereotypes and support different identities, different ways of being, working and doing. 

What can HR do to foster workplace inclusion and equality? 

In collaboration with colleagues I have conducted gender research in several sectors including education, the service sector and with women entrepreneurs. What consistently emerged is the difficulty that women experience in changing the organisational culture, they often feel trapped by long established working practices and succumb to compliance in order to progress, or move on altogether to other organisations or careers. The role of business leaders and HR can be much more than that of developing diversity policies and conduct gender and/or pay audits. Starting with recruitment, the effort should move on from attracting individuals on the basis of their financial performance to recruiting individuals who can demonstrate to have made a difference in their business practice in relation to diversity. HR can invest in equality training and link the training to the measurement and reward of concrete changes in relation to equality and inclusion. Recent research carried out by US academics (Heckman, Johnson and collaborators) and published in the ‘Academy of Management Journal’ and the ‘Harvard Business Review’ revealed that when women and minorities promote diversity they are generally rated lower by their superiors and peers for their work performance and competence. Furthermore their motives are generally seen as biased. They propose a brave solution for managers and suggest to organisations that they should reward members who hire demographically different individuals and actively seek to learn from someone with a different background to themselves. While such approach need to be accompanied by an organisation-wide effort to create a culture of inclusion, it is clear that HR professionals in organisations need to feel greater responsibility for achieving workplace equality and should consider more drastic measures, confronting the organisation’s top management, when needed, with radical solutions that affect the foundations of ‘sexist mindsets’. 

Dr Cinzia Priola is Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies and a member of REEF (Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures) at The Open University Business School 

This article was originally published by HR Magazine. Read the original article.

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