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The Psychology Behind the Gender Pay Gap

by Anita Kirpal
20.Jul.2017 Organisational Development/Teams and Relationships

Gender equality is in the spotlight again. On Wednesday the BBC released its salary scales for actors, presenters, journalists and panellists, and we learned that only a third of its top paid stars are women. Within that there were big disparities, with the highest paid male, Chris Evans, on a salary of around £2.2m and the highest paid female, Claudia Winkleman, on around £500k. This has prompted some people to ask whether a Chris is worth four times a Claudia? Or is there something else going on?

Unfortunately issues of this kind are not unique to the broadcasting world. As a global Leadership Consultancy with a client base in the corporate, governmental and private equity industries, we have first-hand experience of the challenges of gender equality, and we have conducted extensive research on the topic. Just to give some examples, while women make up half the population in the UK, only 25% or so are on the FTSE 100 as board members. And the women who do make it to board level are often put into Non-Exec director roles which have less influence: 30% of Non-Exec directors are women compared to 10% of Exec Directors.

I was interviewed on Wednesday evening by Sky News to get my perspective on the underlying issues. For me there are three key themes:

  1. There are deep-seated cultural biases against women in our society. Men have a tendency to negotiate salaries better than women because they have a gender entitlement and privilege which is reinforced by the lack of transparency around it.  
  2. There is compelling research to show that the more diverse a board, the better are their breadth of thinking and performance. However if you only buy into this on an intellectual level you can put women (or minorities) into roles in order to tick a box. If you have an entitled mentality at an unconscious level you are likely to perpetuate biases which result in you not valuing people who are different, and therefore not paying them as well.
  3. Because you don’t value them you don’t listen to them as much.  This feeds a loop and women can end up believing this and not asserting themselves as much, which can reinforce the unconscious assumption that men are more competent.

So, what can organisations do?

  • Be transparent: gather, track and publish data on areas like representation, promotions and salary (for gender as well as minority groups), and address issues when you find them.
  • Don’t fall for silver bullets: cultural change takes time and requires a sophisticated approach – just sending people on unconscious bias workshops doesn’t work.
  • Face reality: recognize that the world will not tolerate this kind of inequality any more and organisations that won’t change won’t survive.
  • Link it to the day job: change needs to be grounded in the organisation’s business strategy and purpose, rather than a nice to have.
  • Make it personal: diversity is a topic which stimulates strong emotions, so to drive meaningful change, people – and in particular leaders – need to connect with their own rationale for why it matters.

Download the Psychology Behind the Gender Pay Gap

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