Be prepared for equality reps who will tackle pay

One of the main reasons women’s pay continues to lag behind men’s is that so many employers genuinely believe that the gender pay gap lies elsewhere. This was brought home to me when, as a member of the Equal Pay Task Force, I listened to countless employers declaring that they did not have an equal pay problem – but virtually none had checked. The relatively slow take-up of voluntary equal pay audits since then, particularly in the private sector, shows there is little appetite to carry out these checks.

So where does this leave Baroness Prosser’s Women and Work Commission, the latest body to examine the enduring problem of how to close the gap between women and men’s pay? Although the commission’s full report won’t be published until January, it seems certain it will recommend that employers with more than 50 staff should appoint ‘equality representatives’ (Personnel Today, 20 September). The TUC envisages that these reps will be modelled on the system of union learning representatives – ie, on a firm statutory basis with clear duties and rights, such as the right to be given training for their role and time off to perform it. And it seems likely that Prosser’s commission will recommend this model.

Equality working groups already exist in some organisations. Members participate in discussions on various equality matters, such as gender, disability and race, but very rarely on pay. In most cases they do not have the rights that the ‘new’ equality reps may have, such as securing information on pay or selection decisions.

This is a mind-concentrating proposal, particularly when it comes to pay – a sensitive and potentially expensive subject. The message to HR is to get prepared for the arrival of the equality representatives. In that respect, this early warning of their arrival is useful. Pay is inherently complex and, frankly, the better selected and trained your equality reps are, the more productive the partnership is likely to be.

The reps are likely to be elected, so selection won’t be in the hands of HR. But it may be possible for HR to positively influence the process by conveying to the workforce and existing representatives the skills and experience needed to understand and address complex pay issues. It will be to everyone’s advantage if the reps are well trained and are welcomed as genuine partners.

HR needs to prepare itself for the difficult questions it will be asked about pay. To be ready for the arrival of these ‘pay commissars’, HR needs to stay a few steps ahead by reviewing pay systems for possible bias and checking where men and women are doing equal work.

A fair, transparent pay structure capable of straightforward explanation is the key. If HR prepares itself in this way, perhaps we can finally say goodbye to the enduring problem of unequal pay.

Lorraine Paddison is managing director, TMS Equality & Diversity Consultants. She will speak at Personnel Today’s gender pay gap conference in London on 10 November. For further details, go to www.conferencesandtraining.com/paygap


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