Equal pay audits may benefit some but should not be forced on all employers

Last month business groups, including the CBI and British Chambers of Commerce, directly opposed claims that forcing companies to conduct equal pay audits would help reduce the gender pay gap.

They said more legislation would only stifle innovation in workplace diversity. Yet after nearly 30 years of equality legislation the pay gap still stands at 17%, or the equivalent of women being paid an average of £4,000 a year less than men.

But if law is not the answer, Employers’ Law asked a range of HR professionals what exactly the government should focus resources on to reduce the gender pay gap.


In June women’s minister Harriet Harman read a first draft of the Equality Bill in Parliament, claiming it would simplify and combine nine major pieces of diversity law into one document.

The proposals, which stemmed from the 2005 Discrimination Law Review, will aim to make it easier for firms to address inequalities such as the gender pay gap. The Bill will demand more transparency from employers make diversity practices more important in winning government contracts strengthen enforcement of the law and encourage more positive action, she said.

But Vicky Hemming, HR director at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, warned that previous legislation had failed to close the pay gap. Instead, she argued, government funds could be used to promote women in the workplace. “That discrimination on this level still exists, so long after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, is a reflection of the failure to change attitudes. The government is willing to make substantial financial investment to achieve attitudinal change around a range of health issues: why will it not show the same commitment to changing attitudes to valuing working women?,” she asked Employers’ Law.

Changing attitudes

According to Alison O’Connor, HR director at train operator Arriva, the government could invest more money to help women make effective career choices, either before or after taking time off to care for children. “Arriva would support the view that proposals be developed that aim to improve careers advice and eliminate occupational segregation,” she said.

Hemming added that employers had a role to play in ensuring more jobs were offered either part-time or as job shares, to enable women with caring responsibilities to gain access to senior positions. “The cost of pay audits could be better applied to ensuring flexible working, thereby increasing women’s opportunities to access the widest range of jobs.”

Fleur Bothwick, director of diversity and inclusion at professional services firm Ernst & Young, said pay differences could be caused by reasons other than discrimination – including whether women have taken a career break, or returned from maternity leave to a role more junior in skills and experience. “A lot depends on the roles women are in, how the organisation thinks about talent and success and what they value in their employee: past performance, current performance, and potential,” she said.

However, Bothwick admitted that pay audits could help to make sure certain discrimination did not occur. “I’m not convinced that it is possible to legislate fairly, although I strongly believe that all employers should conduct equal pay audits as part of good practice monitoring and measuring,” she added.

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