Mark Whitehead 05 June 2018

Gender pay gap: what next for councils?

Many councils confronted by the recent wave of publicity over figures showing gaps between average men's and women's pay responded positively.

They promised to take action to narrow the 'gender pay gap' ranging from in-depth reviews of recruitment and promotion practices to extra support for women returning from maternity leave to introducing more flexible working practices.

The Greater London Authority unveiled a project called Our Time: Supporting Future Leaders, involving practical action to help women climb the promotion ladder.

It will team up women thought to have potential with senior 'champions', male and female, to help them gain the experience, contacts and professional networks they need to progress into leadership positions.

Mayor Sadiq Khan says it will go beyond traditional development schemes which have failed to address the imbalance of power, instead offering a more structured approach to career progression.

Several London-based public-sector organisations are set to adopt the scheme this summer including two councils, Lambeth and Waltham Forest, as well as the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.

Khan is optimistic. 'Achieving full gender equality won’t happen without a concerted effort,' he says, 'but I’m optimistic we can win this fight.

'As a proud feminist my ambition is to see our city become a place where all young people know they can choose any career, compete in any sector, and, vitally, get to the top of any profession.'

The scheme has taken its cue from the private sector including media giant Sky whose Women in Leadership Sponsorship and Development Programme has resulted in the proportion of women in its leadership positions increasing from 31% to 40% in two years.

Schemes such as Mayor Khan's will undoubtedly be welcome to those fighting for greater workplace equality. They may offer hope only to a small number of women who are probably already well equipped to get on well in their career, but such individuals can make a difference and provide role models for others starting out or trapped in lower-ranking roles.

If the gender pay gap figures showed anything, however, it was that unequal treatment of men and women in local government as well as in every other sector is systemic, entrenched in historic structural inequalities reflecting traditional attitudes and values in society as a whole. As in most organisations in all sectors, in a typical local authority men hold all or most of the top positions while an army of much lower-paid women carry out the more menial roles with little hope of promotion.

In a few councils it is the other way round - the gender gap survey showed that sometimes women are on average better off than their male counterparts. It can happen that large numbers of men are in poorly-paid jobs, pulling down the average pay for males in the organisation as a whole.

But that is the minority and as a general rule women are much worse off than men and - it can be assumed, although the gender pay gap figures did not seek to provide any evidence for this - less likely to be promoted to senior positions.

It is commonly accepted that treating employees well and ensuring everyone is encouraged to do their best and progress in their career is good for business.

Judging by responses from councils to the survey, Mayor Khan's scheme will be one of many such initiatives. But it remains to be seen if all councils are taking action. Local government as well as other parts of the public and private sectors has been given a jolt by the gender pay gap figures. But it's up to them to show what they are going to do about it.

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