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Gender imbalance: bridging the boardroom gap

5 February 2020: while last year saw a record number of women on FTSE 350 boards, closing the gender pay gap is not a straightforward task. What can businesses do to address gender imbalances and why does it make good business sense to do so?

As the centenary of the first woman to be accepted into ICAEW approaches, we speak to Elysia McCaffery, Director of the Government Equalities Office, about progress towards better female representation at senior levels of business and why addressing gender imbalances needs to be at the heart of business strategy.

Which government policies and initiatives have you found most effective in addressing gender imbalances in business? 

Elysia McCaffery (EM): “In 2017, the government brought in ground-breaking regulations requiring employers with 250 or more employees to publish their gender pay gaps (GPG). Since then the Government Equalities Office has been working with employers in a number of sectors to encourage them to put in place detailed and effective action plans to reduce their pay gap and has published guidance advising employers what actions work best. 

“The government-backed Women’s Business Council is also supporting hardest-hit sectors to develop action plans. Last year the median gender pay gap was at a record low of 17.3%.

“In 2016, the government-backed, independent Hampton-Alexander Review set FTSE 350 businesses a target of having 33% of all board and senior leadership positions held by women by the end of 2020. There is now a higher percentage of women on boards of FTSE companies than ever before and no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Last year, we reached 30% women on boards for the FTSE 350 for the first time and we are on track to meet the women on boards target.

“Transparency creates change. We've seen countless news stories, opinion pieces, and debate across society, as transparency has pushed any employers reluctant to take action into the spotlight and shone a light on those businesses working tirelessly to achieve equality.”

What is the biggest single thing that companies can do to make a difference?

EM: “Understand that it’s good business sense to have a range of experience and skills in their boardrooms, and throughout their businesses. 

“I want companies to be using the GPG data they have reported to identify why women are being held back in their organisations and being paid less than male colleagues. They can then develop clear, measurable, evidence-based action plans to tackle these issues and we will be supporting them to do this.

“The government has published advice for employers on how to diagnose their gaps and develop an action plan, alongside evidence-based guidance on practical actions they can take to close the gap.”

Is it time for a shift in thinking in this area?

EM: “We are absolutely committed to closing the gender pay gap. Having got the regulations in place, we are working with sectors and industries to ensure that we are helping them achieve those action plans so that they can make the change.

“Closing the gender pay gap is not a straightforward task, and it is going to take a collaborative effort to make a real difference. We are certainly right to think about the ways that businesses can close this gap. But we are also right to think about how businesses can be supported to close the gap.

“This has to be led by business; we have to bring business and employers with us to make this real cultural change. Equality at work is good for business, good for our country, and I think that, in particular, it is right for women to have the opportunity to earn the same as men. We are all better when society is fairer.”