A landmark decision, which could result in £300m compensation for female NHS workers, recently highlighted differences in pay between men and women.
Mandatory pay reviews could be introduced to force companies to narrow the gap between the salaries of men and women, according to a leaked document reported in this week’s Personnel Today.
The government’s Women and Work Commission will make the call in its interim recommendations, to be published next week (March 8).
The Commission will argue that radical measures are needed to plug the pay gap, which is more than 40% for part-time workers and 18% for full-time employees.
Campaigners have long called for the government to compel employers to carry out such pay audits because many firms are unwilling to do so, including the government-funded Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society, a gender campaigning group.
But experts believe that a change in mindset – rather than in the law – is essential if the gender pay gap is to be bridged.
But some 47% of employers have no plans to carry out such an audit, revealed a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
CIPD reward adviser Charles Cotton says it is vital organisations undertake a broad review of the way they manage employees.
This should include everything from recruitment and selection to promotion and pay rises, as well as performance appraisals, he says.
Making pay audits mandatory would risk them becoming tick-box exercises that weren’t taken seriously, says Cotton.
“I can appreciate calls for making audits mandatory, but it is up to the government and organisations like ourselves to persuade companies to take a voluntary approach.”
Cotton says employers should also make sure their pay structure is fair, rather than merely concentrating on making it equal between the genders.
“The problem is that there are quite a few reasons for the gender gap – including the different subjects chosen by girls and boys at school.”
The tendency for females rather than males to go into caring professions was another factor, as was the way that society viewed and rewarded these occupations.
The Confederation of British Industry is also opposed to mandatory pay audits, saying that the extra cost burden would be unacceptable.
Rather than legislation, CBI spokesman Richard Dodd says deep-rooted cultural influences must be overcome if the gender gap is to be narrowed.
“The usual view is that this is due to nasty employers willingly paying women less but it is much more complicated than that,” he says.
“It’s not about discrimination – we are not saying that discrimination never happens, but it is too simple an argument.”
Women should be enabled to make wider career choices, and encouraged to take on jobs traditionally seen as the preserve of men, agrees Dodd.
This process should start at school, where girls should be encouraged to study subjects such as sciences, he adds.
Acas, the arbitration service, echoes the view that subtle efforts are needed if the gender pay gap is to be bridged.
Officially, Acas does not have a view on whether pay audits should be mandatory. But it does believe awareness of equal pay legislation should be raised.
Acas spokeswoman Paula Williams suggested that a low-key approach, such as more funding to raise awareness of the issues would be a good idea.
“It’s a difficult issue,” she acknowledges. “It’s not just about a lack of knowledge, but also about the cost.”