Social media executives collectively held their head in their hands yesterday as their carefully constructed International Women’s Day posts were “hijacked” by a Twitter bot calling out their gender pay gap.
The Gender Pay Gap Bot (@paygapapp) captured tweets from companies using hashtags related to International Women’s Day and used publicly available data to share the difference in median hourly pay between men and women.
Its cover profile read “Deeds not words. Stop posting platitudes. Start fixing the problem.”
The bot was recommended and retweeted by many Twitter users, pointing out the apparent hypocrisy between pictures of female employees in crossed arm poses asking leaders to #breakthebias while collectively being paid less than their male colleagues.
Some gender pay gaps appeared to be well above the government reporting portal’s 2020/21 average of 13.3%: the bot claimed that pub chain Young’s paid female employees 73.2% less than male workers (a figure that was down to a change in reporting due to furlough), while Ryanair’s was 68.6%.
Faced with a potential reputational backlash, a number of organisations either deleted their posts or reposted without using the hashtag, so they wouldn’t be picked up by the bot.
Newman University in Birmingham, for example, where women’s median hourly pay is 18.6% lower than men’s, reposted its message without the hashtag. Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue did the same.
In this organisation, women's median hourly pay is 68.6% lower than men's. https://t.co/Vk45EVqON4
— Gender Pay Gap Bot (@PayGapApp) March 7, 2022
The Gender Pay Gap Bot did also pick up on a number of organisations where median hourly pay is equal, or where women are paid more, including Community Integrated Care, St John Ambulance (equal), Stockport Council and Hyperoptic (more).
But while the bot undoubtedly shone a light on the lingering differences between male and female salaries, it masked some of the complexities in both reporting gender pay gaps and addressing the issues behind them.
Firstly, the figures are not a secret. Gender pay gap reporting became a requirement in 2018 for employers with 250 staff or more, and figures for those that have reported are available on the government’s gender pay gap reporting site. It only shows a snapshot in workforce data from a company’s last published gender pay gap figures.
Furthermore, the pandemic has had a significant impact both on the reporting of gender pay figures and the gap itself.
Gender pay gap reporting was initially suspended for 2019/20 results at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and a further six-month suspension was announced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in February 2021. The deadline for reporting reverts to 4 April this year for private and third sector employers, and 30 March for the public sector.
A review by consulting firm PwC last year found that just under 25% of companies published theirs before the ‘normal’ deadline of 5 April 2021 after the deadline was extended to October.
Furlough, the fact that women were more likely to be juggling care and working responsibilities during the pandemic and also more likely to be made redundant, have all likely skewed figures in the last two reporting cycles.
We are fully transparent about our gender pay gap and remain committed to reducing it. Our reported pay gap figures have been significantly distorted due to COVID-19 and the furloughing of the majority of our staff, impacting the sample size taken for the report. Our adjusted 1/3
— Young's Pubs (@YoungsPubs) March 8, 2022
A number of companies included appendices to their figures in their government reporting to reflect the fact that a large proportion of their workforce had been on furlough during periods of the pandemic, for example.
Pub chain Mitchells & Butlers stated that “the impact of the furlough scheme significantly distorted the gender pay gap results for the 2019/20 reporting year, with only a very small proportion of employees at work on the reporting day”. It added that its report for 2020/21 would likely have “similar issues”.
Similarly, Young’s described the figures as “very misleading” due to the changes in reporting brought about by furlough.
“COVID-19 forced us to close all of our pubs and in order to protect our business, we had to furlough the vast majority of our staff. This meant our gender pay gap figures were significantly distorted as the sample size taken for the report was only around 40 people compared to around 4,600 staff we employ,” the company said in a statement.
“Our figures adjusted for furlough are a more accurate reflection of our business, which shows our median gender pay gap is 5.6% and our mean is 10.9%, substantially better than the national median of 14.9. This is more in line with the figures we achieved in 2018 and 2019.”
A report by the Women and Equalities Committee for International Women’s Day 2021 found that more women held jobs that were eligible for furlough – 2.3 million jobs held by women during the lockdown in early 2021 were on furlough compared to 2.18 million jobs held by men.
According to guidance from the EHRC, employers should have included workers on furlough to determine headcount, but exclude them if they were receiving less than full pay and on furlough on the snapshot date. Furloughed employees whose salaries were topped up to full pay would be considered “full-pay relevant” and therefore included in the calculation.
Gender pay gap reporting
Even as we move into new ways of working, progress on closing the gender pay gap is likely to be slower and more complex than before the pandemic.
In an article for Personnel Today this week, family-friendly working campaigner Sarah Jackson noted that hybrid working could mean more women end up “out of sight … and more frequently out of mind” because family responsibilities mean they choose to work from home. As a result, they may miss out on career progression opportunities that could boost their earning power.
Some HR professionals argued that rather than remove tweets and hashtags, employers should explain what they are doing to address the gap.
Claire Williams, chief people officer for software company CIPHR, said employers should “use gender pay gap reporting as an opportunity to really use the data to drive change within their organisation and not just as a ‘tick box’ exercise”.
“Employers need to recognise the direction of travel when it comes to gender pay gap reporting and that this is likely to expand over the years to include ethnicity, disability, and other protected characteristics. Better representation of women and ethnic minorities at all levels, in all roles, across all organisations, is vital to ensuring that pay gaps are reduced more quickly.”
Kate Jarman, director of corporate affairs at Milton Keynes University Hospital and co-founder of Flex NHS, which promotes flexible working in the health service, pointed out that the scrutiny should inspire action rather than a marketing panic.
In a tweet, she said “The @paygapapp is not shaming you, the gender pay gap that exists in so many of our organisations is… It is right to draw attention to it on this of all days.”
The @PayGapApp is not shaming you, the gender pay gap that exists in so many of our organisations is. I include my own organisation in that, unhappily. It is right to draw attention to it on this of all days. So don’t delete you tweet – commit to close the gap #IWD2022
— Kate Jarman (she/her) 💙 (@KateBurkeNHS) March 8, 2022
Others pointed out that vocal backing for equality initiatives will invariably lead to scrutiny. “Organisations have to be incredibly careful providing public backing for initiatives such as International Women’s Day if they can’t live up to what that stands for in practice,” said Amanda Lennon, employment partner at law firm Spencer West. “Reputational damage can happen when marketing and HR teams are working in silos, and something may be shared on social media that exposes double standards within an organisation.
“There is a clear issue with the gender pay in many UK businesses, which is why we have legislation around the reporting of these figures. It is much better for firms with pay gaps to be honest about the situation and explain how they are tackling the issue, rather than use PR spin to support an initiative or event that they cannot evidence compliance with in their business.”
With three-quarters of eligible companies still to report their 2021/22 gender pay gap before the April deadline this year, the Gender Pay Gap Bot will have likely given pause for thought.
Those that have already done so have added some context to any change in figures. Asda, for example, reported a difference in median hourly pay for women of 15.4%, slightly higher than the year before.
Chief people officer Hayley Tatum said the company would continue to promote more women into senior roles and that reducing the pay gap “remains a core focus”.
When the government introduced the regulations in 2017, it built into them an obligation to review their impact in five years’ time, which is April 2022. The Government Equalities Office told Personnel Today that the review would be published “in the Spring” but did not confirm dates.
In the meantime, as employers increasingly expand their data collection into areas such as ethnicity and disability, transparency and commitment to change – rather than shying away from negative publicity – will be crucial.