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Can flexible working reduce your gender pay gap?

Published: 25 Sep 2019

Your gender pay gap tells you that your organisation probably has fewer women in better paid, more senior roles; more in less well paid, more junior roles; and probably more women than men in part-time roles.

This matters.  Gender diversity at the top delivers better performance: fact. [1]

But women seem to be stuck.  The gender pay gap increases for mothers after the birth of the first child, and once it opens up, it persists, widening over the next 20 years until women’s hourly wages are about a third below men’s. [2]   The average mother waits for two years longer than the average father to be promoted [3] —that’s a direct and measurable impact of motherhood on career progress.

Your gender pay gap is an alarm bell—it influences whether women choose to work for you. [4]

It’s important to remember that this is not about ‘fixing the women’.  That’s been tried for the past 40 years.  Action is needed to make it easier for women and men to raise children, care for older dependants and flourish at work.  The opportunity today is to rethink how work itself is designed and organised.  A key tool is flexible working, which is not an answer in itself, but a vital part in attracting, retaining, and progressing female talent.

Rethink the role 

Zurich increased female applicants to senior management roles by 45% in only three months by advertising every vacancy as being potentially a ‘part-time, job share or full time working opportunity’ – meaning if the best applicant needed the job to be flexible or part-time, it would be. [5]

Requiring hiring managers to adopt flexibility by default goes much further and deeper than what the advert looks like.   It’s about digging under the skin of the role, to make sure that it truly meets the organisation’s needs today and in the future: asking what its purpose is, key outputs, when and where it can be done.  This future-proofs it for flexible working requests, and the manager starts from the front foot, with a deeper understanding of what is possible.  Engaging the team in the role review establishes that this is not about making an exception for a particular individual, but opening up opportunities more widely and inclusively to attract the best.

Rethink career progression 

Many leaders respond to their gender pay gap by sighing about the great women in their organisations who choose to work part-time.  Right issue, but almost always incorrect analysis.  It’s not the part-time hours in themselves that are the problem but that most organisations apply the brakes to the part-time worker’s career.  Compare performance ratings for part-time and full-time workers.  Challenge manager assumptions that part-time workers are less focused on their careers, or less committed to the organisation.  Encourage part-time leaders to be open and role model their choices.  Because…

Rethink the norm 

…research shows that people who are open about their desire to achieve work-life balance (who tend to be women) are penalised, while those who operate under the radar (who tend to be men) face no such penalties. [6]   Sharing real stories of flexible working especially in more senior roles is vital, as is promoting flexible working at key points for men (such as becoming a father, or returning from a period of parental leave), and building into all annual reviews a discussion with men and with women of their work-life aspirations and current balance.  Normalise it.  Bring it out into the open.  Until flexibility truly does become ‘the way we do things here’, it will continue to be gendered in its use and in its impact.  And the gender pay gap will continue to remind us of our failure to make the most of the talents of 50% of our people.

Do you need help closing your gender pay gap?  Working Families has 40 years’ experience supporting employers in transforming their policy, practice, and company culture to be more flexible, family-friendly, and gender-equal.  Become a member, sign up for our training and coaching, or browse our guides and toolkits today! 

Employers can use the Happy To Talk Flexible Working strapline on their job adverts.


[1] Companies with diverse executive boards outperform peers run by all-male boards, Grant Thornton 2014

[2]  Wage progression and the gender wage gap, Institute of Fiscal Studies 2018

[3] Modern Families Index 2019, Working Families and Bright Horizons

[4]  Gender pay gap determines women’s choice of employer, EHRC 2018

[5] How did Zurich increase female applicants by 45%? – Insurance Business Magazine

[6] Summary – Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities, McMaster University 2015

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