Campaigners are pushing for employers to close the disability employment gap at a quicker pace, but are organisations measuring the right thing, with the right intention? Angela Matthews argues for a more holistic approach.
The government recently published figures on the disability employment gap. Campaigners often say that the gap has not moved far enough.
Business Disability Forum agrees but we also remain cautious about if we – employers and the government – are measuring the right thing, and in the right way.
With the government shortly due to publish its consultation on making disability workforce reporting mandatory for employers with over 250 employees, now is the time we need to consider, what we need to measure to achieve true workplace inclusion.
Behind the scenes
We know from our work with employers that an “impressive” percentage of disabled people in the workforce, beautifully structured and legally accurate policies, and emotive internal communications campaigns are not the measure of an inclusive workplace for disabled people.
I recently spoke to a disabled employee working in an organisation which had won awards and attracted media attention for disability inclusion.
When I suggested to this employee that they had perhaps found an employer that truly values that everyone is different, they burst into tears and said I “could not be more wrong”. They then proceeded to share their personal workplace experiences with me.
This is not an isolated incident; I hear it often. We are surely missing the point if the experience of disabled employees and how they feel when they are at work does not match what we say and do in our workplace inclusion policies and communications.
Sharing information about a disability
What has this got to do with data monitoring? Everything. For years, employers have asked us how they get more people to tell them they have a disability.
Two things here. Firstly, employees are unlikely to tell their employer about their disability if they feel their employer will treat them differently.
An increasing mound of research shows that employees try not to share information about their disability until the really have to and that employees very much fear and dread sharing this information.
The culture of the whole organisation needs to feel an edifying one before anyone volunteers personal information about their lives.
Secondly, this being the most common question reflects something the government’s own statisticians have commented on in their recent reporting. It is likely that more people are now saying they have a disability when responding to surveys and that this is having a significant impact on the figures. This does not mean that more disabled people are getting into employment.
We have also long said that measuring ‘a’ gap is no true measure of equality, let alone inclusion. This is because just one figure puts a “non-severe” experience of a condition in the same group as someone with profound and complex disabilities.
We know some of the biggest barriers people experience are by type of adjustments and by type of condition or impairment.
A high figure that doesn’t include a wider representation of different types of people, disabilities, and ways of working is not equality, and it’s definitely not inclusion.
Measuring disability pay
We have similar concerns over measuring the disability pay gap. We need a more robust and effective methodology than that which gives us one overall figure.
The current methodology, which produces a single pay gap figure, does not give an accurate or useful picture to equip us to, firstly, identify the barriers to increasing earnings and, secondly, removing those barriers.
As an example, we know people with learning disabilities or long-term mental ill health are typically in lower paid jobs and working fewer hours than people with conditions related to neuroprocessing (or neurodiverse conditions) and some who have conditions affecting physical mobility.
We also know that many disabled people choose to be in part time work or non-managerial jobs because this is the most manageable employment option for them while managing complex conditions and medical treatments.
The current methodology, which produces a single pay gap figure, does not give an accurate or useful picture to equip us to, firstly, identify the barriers to increasing earnings and, secondly, removing those barriers.”
Therefore, the most inclusive thing an employer can do in such circumstances is offer downwards and sideways movements in the organisation or reduce someone’s hours (again, according to the employee’s wish to manage their conditions).
But this ultimately, of course, affects the figure we get for the disability pay gap. I spoke to a disabled woman working in finance.
Her employer had asked her to increase her hours and she had been repeatedly asked (“harassed” in her words) to apply for promotions, even though she did not want them.
This was all done in an attempt by the employer to achieve the figures set out in their inclusion strategy.
The woman felt that her employer’s figures were the outcomes, rather than her employer being supportive and understanding what is best for her managing her condition and being her best at work. This employer was regimented with its data reporting. But can we say this is inclusion?
Workforce monitoring is important. But we need measurements that accurately tell us two things: who moves in and out of employment, and what their experience and opportunities are like when they are there.
This is hard, because it is far from where many employers and government data methodologies are at the moment.
It is far easier to require one reported figure based on the same engrained methodologies and language that we have used for decades.
Changing it will be hard work. But it will also mean we are serious about inclusion. Now is the time to consider which option we really want to invest in.