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Connecting women and opportunity

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Action plans speak louder than words when it comes to the gender pay gap

Nikki Pound, Women’s Officer at the TUC


Nikki Pound is the women’s officer at the TUC, the Trades Union Congress. Nikki works on policy development and campaigning on equality, with a particular focus on women’s equality. Prior to this role, she worked as the TUC’s policy and campaigns officer for the Rights, International, Social and Economics Department.

Nikki Pound - TUC
Nikki Pound (Image ©Jess Hurd)

“There is so much uncertainty and so many challenges that we have to be very watchful because there is a real risk that without targeted interventions and a real focus on women’s equality, we could actually see progress going backwards.”

From business to retail to campaigning and activism

Maybe it’s a bit of an unusual path, but I studied business at the University of Hull, where I am originally from. I was one of the first in my family to go to university. In my final year, I took a particular interest in my politics and economics modules, so I decided to do a master’s degree in globalisation and governance.

The whole time I was studying at university, I was working in retail as well. As I graduated in 2008, at the time of the financial crash, it was very tricky to know what to do next, so I went to work full time as a retail manager for a few years. I then moved to London and took up a head office retail role, so up until about three years ago, I was working in the private sector, in logistics and merchandising, and outside of work, I was doing a lot of political campaigning and activism.

Then, I stood for my local council in 2018, but I didn’t win. However, this gave me the confidence I needed to move into something where I could use my political and activist passion full time. Even though my career in retail was great, some issues such as the gender pay gap were definitely politicising in the workplace for me.

So, about four years ago, I made the decision to start looking into changing careers. After doing a lot of research on the types of jobs that are out there, I wondered how I could use my transferrable skills to switch roles and sectors.

One day, I came across a job at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in the Economics Team. So, I applied for that, and I got it! Then, last year, an opportunity came up to move over into their Equalities Team, as a women’s officer, and here I am, almost a year later.

Driving action for female workers

In 2019, when I worked on the Economics Team, I was incredibly busy as there were a lot of things in the political landscape I had to react to — the transition towards Brexit, an unexpected general election, and then a global pandemic.

The women’s equality officer role is equally broad as the economics one. People aren’t always sure what areas the women’s officer role covers so they ask me: “What areas do you cover?” and I always remind them that women are 50% of the population, and 57% of the trade union movement are women. So, every issue affects women and their experiences at work and in society.

My day-to-day is basically looking at a whole range of issues. The key issues that are always on the agenda, especially as a trade union, are pay, insecure work and casualisation, occupational segregation, and public services, because there is a high proportion of women that use public services, and also that women are more likely to work in public services.

Health and safety in the workplace have always been a key policy area as well, but, because of the pandemic, that has become even more of a conversation. From the perspective in recent years around access to proper PPE, but also issues like menopause in the workplace, miscarriage, menstruation, childcare, parental leave policies, and violence against women and girls are also huge areas for us. I am here to help develop policies to try and address all these different ways that women are discriminated against.

Often my job intersects with the work of other TUC officers. We have equality officers for race, LGBT, and disabled workers as well. We also have a young workers’ policy officer and a pensions policy officer.

I also liaise with TUC’s affiliates — there are nearly 50 trade unions (48 to be exact) that are affiliated with the TUC. Part of my job is working with them to find out what is going on with their members, what their workplace experiences are so we can work together to drive change and action in those spaces.

Sometimes that might be me doing some headline research that affiliates can use to support their campaigns, or it might be the TUC driving a campaign itself. At the moment, we have campaigns on key workers’ pay, Britain needs a pay rise, and we had an International Women’s Day campaign where we asked companies what they are doing for their women workers, so we address a real variety of issues, but it all comes down to trying to drive action and change in the world of work for women and workers more broadly.

Understanding the difference between gender pay gaps and equal pay

The gender pay gap is the difference in the average pay between men and women. We get national statistics on this through the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There is a report on the gender pay gap every year.

Gender pay gapThen, we also get statistics through Government gender pay gap reporting, which was introduced in 2017. Companies that have at least 250 employees have to report their gender pay gap through this. Those with less than 250 employees don’t have to but they can also do so voluntarily. (The TUC does so voluntarily, for example.)

Equal pay refers to the legal requirement that, regardless of whether you are a man or woman, you must receive equal pay if you’re in the same employment performing the same work. That is based on the Equal Pay Act 1970. So, it’s illegal if you are doing the same job as a man and are paid less than them.

Equal pay also refers to equal pay for work of equal value. That covers jobs where the skills for them are the same or similar, even if it is not the same job. The job itself might be different, but the level of skills, effort, and responsibility may be similar.

A really good example of that is retail, as you may have someone who’s working in a retail store on the checkout, and then you may have someone who’s working in a warehouse. They are not doing the same job, but they are of equal value to the company, they are both intrinsic to the company. Equal pay is also about levelling up that type of pay. Having equal pay within an organisation can feel the same as the gender pay gap and they are related, especially when we talk about work of equal value, but it’s not exactly the same thing.

Impact of COVID on the gender pay gap: Too soon to say

When the Government paused the gender pay gap reporting at the start of the pandemic we thought it was the wrong decision. Even though we appreciate what they were saying about businesses obviously being under a lot of stress at the time, most organisations’ figures had already been prepared and were ready to go.

Equality should still be absolutely central to any interventions or recovery plans, so I think stepping back from it at the time was not great. This was something we were quite critical of in terms of the impact of COVID on the gender pay gap.

I think it’s too soon to say if COVID has impacted the gender pay gap without looking at the Office of National Statistics data that allows us to calculate the compound annual growth rate (CAGR). In the most recent release from the ONS in October last year they said that the long-term trend is that the pay gap is closing. I think that probably it is too soon to see exactly the impact of the pandemic on the pay gap, but at best it is closing very slowly.

Based on our calculations, the pay gap in the UK is just over 15% now, so at that rate, it will take at least another quarter of a century to close the average pay gap, but the pay gap is not the same across the country or within different sectors. Some sectors have pay gaps of well over 15%. We also have the gender pensions gap, which is more than double the pay gap at around 38%. Therefore, I think regardless of whether the gender pay gap has fallen slightly in the last few years, the point is that we need a more concrete target and explicit action towards closing it, it’s not going to happen just by itself.

There was a report released just before Christmas from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which said that if you adjust for changes in educational attainment like more women going to university, then the gender pay gap hasn’t shifted for about 25 years. It has stayed basically the same so we are not making the progress we need.

In terms of the pandemic, I think it’s too soon to say what the fallout is in the long term, but we do know that women have been at the sharp end of the crisis — they were simultaneously on the frontline as key workers, and were also more likely to work in the sectors that were shut down by the pandemic, like hospitality, retail, and the arts.

Women also bear more of the caring and domestic responsibilities in the home and that was exacerbated during the crisis. So, there will be a long-term impact of that, plus the impacts on childcare. We know so many women that struggle with childcare, and if they can’t get access to decent affordable childcare, that is going to push them out of the labour market. Then there’s the cost-of-living crisis, which again affects women more as they tend to do more work that is lower-paid, part time and insecure.

There is so much uncertainty and so many challenges that we have to be very watchful because there is a real risk that without targeted interventions and a real focus on women’s equality, we could actually see progress going backwards.

Women’s Pay Day

Women’s Pay Day is a symbolic day dedicated to raising awareness of the gender pay gap. It varies across different countries because the gap is also different, but some countries measure it from the point where women stop getting paid in the year relative to men, and some people do it from the point where women start getting paid, relative to men.

The Fawcett Society records theirs in November, whereas at the TUC we have ours at the end of February. No matter how you look at it, the key message is that, based on the gender pay gap of 15.4%, that means that for 56 days of the year, women do not get paid relative to men. This means that this year women only started getting paid from the 25th of February, on average, nationally.

This varies by region too. For example, in the South East, the gender pay gap is nearly 19%. So, in part of the country, Women’s Pay Day is the 9th of March. In the South West, it’s about 16.5%, so it’s more at the start of March when their pay happens.

Age also influences the pay gap. Women aged 50 to 59 have the highest gender pay gap, at 21.8%; so that means they work 80 days of the year for free. Furthermore, the pay gap for disabled women versus non-disabled men is about 24%, so their equal pay day will probably be towards the end of March.

The biggest pay gap is in financial services, and it is equivalent to 118 days! So, more than a third of the year.

It’s not just about numbers, it’s about action!

Getting women into more senior roles is one way of boosting the pay of women and we certainly need to create workplaces that help more women progress into senior roles. I was doing some research the other day and I saw that there are only six women CEOs in the FTSE 100. That is quite shocking.

Frances O'Grady
Frances O’Grady

I think having women in leadership roles is not just about impacting headline numbers, but it’s also about impacting the culture of a workplace, about putting in place measures that will help other women progress. For instance, it’s inspirational for me to work at the TUC surrounded by women leaders, like Frances O’Grady. It makes it feel like it’s within reach.

It’s also important to get policies in place in the workplace to close the pay gap, which is why we want to see mandatory action plans in place as well as interventions from Government. It’s not enough for employers to just report the pay gap. It’s not just about the numbers on a page, they’ve got to translate into action, and that’s why we feel like mandatory action plans would be a really important tool to closing the gender pay gap.

When I worked in retail and my previous employer published their gender pay gap, many of my colleagues and I were quite frankly shocked and annoyed, and we wanted to have a discussion about what they were going to do about the gender pay gap. The response from the employer was that the gap was because women choose to work flexibly (e.g. part time). There was no consideration of why that might be and how they could support their women workers or parents at work in general, or of considering equal pay for work of equal value, or how they could make sure that those who did work flexibly weren’t being excluded from pay and progression opportunities.

Action plans speak louder than words

As part of extending the pay gap legislation, the Government told employers they had to fix their gender pay gaps. We also want to see pay gap reporting extended to ethnicity and disability because we do see that they intersect too.

Having some guidance on what a good action plan looks like to fix their gender pay gaps is a good way to support progress. Trade Unions as well as organisations like ACAS and the CIPD can help with this. We have been working alongside our affiliates and the Equality Trust recently to develop an equal pay toolkit, which is not quite the same thing, but it does lean into the gender pay gap.

Having some examples of what good practice looks like will definitely help to encourage employers, but the things that action plans need to include are questions about their recruitment practices, because that can be really discriminatory towards women as well as people from BAME backgrounds. Also, are they doing job evaluations to look at equal pay for work of equal value? What are employers doing to support women’s progression in the workplace?

For example, a lot of women work part time because they are not able to work full time for many reasons, such as lack of childcare or other caring responsibilities, for example, but how do we ensure women get equal access to training and are not frozen out of the workplace and development opportunities?

We should also question what their flexible working policies are, what their parental leave policies are, because TUC workers are entitled to shared parental leave, but we know that the uptake on statutory shared parental leave is somewhere between 1-3%. Ultimately, it’s very unaffordable for most working families.

So the employer needs to be communicating whether they have an enhanced parental leave policy that enables more people to take shared parental leave? Do you have carers’ leave policies? These are all things that workplaces need to be asking themselves as these are the things that drive the gender pay gap. What can we do in our workplace to close that gap by having these workplace policies?

Pay Transparency Pilot

I am really glad that the Government announced the new Pay Transparency Pilot on this year’s International Women’s Day. It’s good to see that, despite Brexit, Britain is keeping pace with important conversations that are happening all over Europe.

Part of my job is seeing what the Government is doing and pre-empting it, influencing it, responding to it, as well as working out what that actually means for workers, so we’ll be observing the pilot closely.

Still much to be done

We’ve just had the Spring Statement from the Chancellor last week and we were quite disappointed, in terms of help for working families and people who are going to be at the sharp end of this crisis. There really isn’t a lot in there to support them.

Firstly, I think we’re still not out of the pandemic. We all want to get back to ‘normality’, but there are still issues around people needing to take time off sick, and women are the most affected by that. There are around 2 million people who do not qualify for statutory sick pay, and the majority of them are women. So, we’ve got these ongoing issues, which are coupled with the longest pay squeeze since Napoleonic time and now bills soaring.

There’s not been a lot announced that will help women and nothing was said about childcare, which affects women’s progression in the workplace. Also, for people who cannot work because they have caring responsibilities, or because they are disabled, there was nothing on Universal Credit or the support measures that we know from the pandemic are so vital for people when they are in crisis.

So, I was very disappointed with the spring statement, but we will be looking at it in more detail and do further analysis on what that means exactly for different equalities, groups, and more broadly, for workers. I think it just shows us there is a lot to do.

TUC-Womens-ConferenceOn a positive note, we’ve just had our Annual TUC Women’s Conference. That’s where we bring together women from across our movement from all our affiliates. We had it online again this year as we were concerned about some of the safety risks, but we managed to have a brilliant conference over three days, with women from all over the country, from all our unions, speaking about their experiences and the things that are important to them.

Some of the key areas that came out were health and safety, menopause, pregnancy loss and mental health, and some really powerful discussions around violence against women and girls, as a workplace issue. Also, women’s rights and representation, again focusing on equal pay, and tackling the gender pay and pensions gap and flexible working. Issues around statutory sick pay and key workers’ pay were also highly mentioned.

My job now is to take all of that and make it into a work plan for the coming 12 months, looking at how we can use those priorities to inform our key campaigns. We’re still campaigning on the Government’s long-awaited Employment Bill because that is a key legislative vehicle that could do a lot if it contained the things we want it to. So, a lot to do but some really positive and inspiring areas to work on to bring change about for women.

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