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5 ways to close the gender pay gap

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HR leaders want to know how to close the gender pay gap. Why? Because time and time again, research has shown that improving pay equity improves not only talent management and employer brands, but also and financial outcomes. Still, progress on closing the gap has been slow. According to the ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, the average gender pay gap in the UK was 14.3% in 2023.

The causes of gender pay gaps are multiple and varied. Though paying men and women differently for the same or equivalent work—an illegal practice—still happens, there are several other more impactful factors that contribute to the gender pay gap. According to the International Labour Organisation, these include:

  • Representation gaps in leadership.
  • Parenting responsibilities tending to fall more on working mothers, which leads to more part-time work or time out of the workforce.
  • Feminized jobs that are undervalued and tend to pay less.
  • Education in certain disciplines associated with higher paying jobs (i.e., STEM).

To make sustainable progress in reducing the gap, employers must consider these factors and how to influence them. In this guide, we set out five ways to do this.

1. Review policies and documents

Policies and documents related to pay, such as the organisation’s reward policy and reward philosophy, can have a significant impact on the organisation’s pay gap by influencing not only pay practices, but also perceptions.

A reward policy describes the organisation’s practices related to employee pay and benefits. This includes setting initial pay, how pay rises are calculated and other pay-related processes. A reward philosophy describes the organisation’s approach to pay and benefits, in addition to its market position relative to other employers.

Employers should regularly review the scope, content and implementation of these and other pay-related documents to check that they account for legislative changes and are fair, objective and transparent.

When reviewing policies, consider the following:

Call out pay equity

Organisations that regularly review policies to ensure they align with the organisation’s approach equity are more likely to see gains in key performance areas. To promote improvements in equity and make progress on closing the pay gap, consider formalising your organisation’s commitment to equity in the reward policy, philosophy and other related documents.

Include all stakeholders

A particularly effective way of making sure that policies are inclusive and take account of the different needs of employees in the organisation is to involve people from throughout the organisation in policy review and development. Note that providing the opportunity to contribute to policy development in a confidential way is likely to encourage more open and meaningful feedback.

Remove biased language

Ensure that the language and terminology used in these documents are gender neutral. Some terms can imply gender bias, and their use risks undermining an employer’s efforts to advance gender equity.

While some terms are obvious (“his and hers”), other gendered language may be harder to spot, such as words like “assertive”, “leadership,” “dynamic” or “caring.” To help catch words like these, consider an inclusive language tool like Trinka or UInclude.

Align policies with practice

Policies that are neutral and objective can still result in gender bias if they aren’t applied correctly. This can result in gender inequalities in recruitment, promotion or retention, all of which can contribute to widening your pay gap.

Because managers play a significant role in applying workplace policies, ensure that they understand how to apply policies and procedures in a fair and nondiscriminatory way. Additionally, when making decisions on pay and reward, keep a record of the data sources used in the decision-making process. This will help ensure that pay practices align with company policies.

2. Practice pay transparency

Providing salary information in job adverts is a proven method of ensuring that pay practices are fair and free from gender bias.

In fact an analysis by Brightmine, formerly XpertHR, found that where an employer is transparent over salary in job adverts, they’re more likely to have a lower gender pay gap. The same applies to the gender bonus gap. Our analysis also found that the proportion of females occupying top roles was highest in organisations that reported all job adverts contained salary information.

3. Limit managerial discretion

Research from the University of Florida and Emory University found that managers continue to hold both express and implicit gender biases, which increases the likelihood of biased decision-making. Biased decisions related to an employees’ performance, promotional opportunities, and development will contribute to gender wage gaps over time.

To prevent biased decision-making, limit managerial discretion in decisions that impact employee pay either directly or indirectly. In cases where some level of discretion is necessary, put checks in place to review decisions independently. Two important decisions of this nature include starting pay and performance reviews.

Starting pay

Starting pay has a significant impact on pay inequity and pay gaps within the organisation. This is because every time an employer fills a vacancy, it needs to make decisions about what pay and benefits it will offer to the successful job applicant.

To reduce the likelihood of pay inequities and pay gaps in starting pay, it’s important to always confirm that the job is correctly benchmarked against internal comparators. This can be done through a job evaluation exercise.

A job evaluation exercise is the process of assessing the content of a job by reference to its core components, such as skill, effort and responsibility, to place jobs in order of hierarchy. It establishes a basis for all stakeholders (including management, employees and trade unions) to agree on the relative value of jobs to form the basis of career structures within the organisation and to establish a fair pay system.

A job evaluation is the most reliable way for employers to identify where women and men are doing work of equal value, for equal pay purposes. And, it provides an independent review of starting pay decisions.

Performance reviews

Another decision that contributes to pay gaps is the performance review. Performance reviews generally lead to incremental pay increases (also known as merit pay), and they’re also used to determine whether an employee should recieve a promotion or qualify for development opportunities. They’re also referred to when an employee would like to transfer within the organisation.

Unfortunately, performance reviews are often fraught with managerial bias, and there’s a level of unavoidable discretion. But there are strategies to increase objectivity, such as:

  • Training managers and anyone else involved in performance on avoiding bias.
  • Using evaluation rubrics.
  • Including review prompts for managers that limit discretion (e.g., prompts that require managers to highlight a specified number of employee strengths).
  • Including a second level review of all performance reviews.

4. Monitor decisions over time

Over time, decisions influencing pay that initially seem objective may begin to show trends or patterns along gendered lines. This includes performance-related pay increases, promotions, development opportunities and other factors that can ultimately contribute to a pay gap. Monitoring these decisions over time can help you evaluate whether your policies and practices are reducing or contributing to the pay gap.

Yearly reviews

To monitor trends, review the distribution of assessments and payments across each grade or job level after each annual round of performance assessments. Where there is bias towards or against a particular group of employees, this should be investigated. In addition to reviewing how these assesments are distributed by gender, review other employee characteristics, such as employee ethnicity or disability status.

It’s common for part-time workers to benefit less from performance-related pay schemes, so pay particular attention to this group of workers and others on non-standard working patterns.

Monitor development opportunties

Similarly, it’s important to monitor selection for development opportunities by gender. Creating an environment in which all employees are encouraged to develop and realise their goals will help close the pay gap by promoting equity and improving the balance of representation in leadership and other historically gendered job roles.

Touchpoints that impact on employees’ ability to progress in the organisation include:

  • Learning opportunities.
  • Mentoring schemes.
  • Promotion opportunities.
  • Knowledge, skills and competency development.

5. Conduct pay equity audits

While employers are under no obligation to carry out an pay equity audit, they do have a responsibility to ensure that employees receive equal pay for equal work. The most effective way to be confident of this is to carry out an audit.

A pay equity audit is a structured risk assessment tool that enables you to:

  • Identify where men and women are doing equal work and compare their pay.
  • Identify and explain the reasons for any pay differences.
  • Eliminate any pay differences that are either directly or indirectly discriminatory.

Pay equity audits also provide you with the information you need to make targeted adjustments that will ensure compliance with the law and help close the gap. If you have advanced pay equity software, you can also measure pay gaps across multiple demographics.

Though pay equity audits can be extremely effective, when done incorrectly, they can lead to innaccurate results, low morale and even lawsuits if identified inequalities are not addressed. If you’re conducting your first pay equity audit, take time to make thorough preparations. This includes the following:

  • Acquiring the right data.
  • Setting objectives.
  • Gaining buy-in from stakeholders.
  • Acquiring a pay gap software solution.

Accounting for intersectionality

In addition to implementing the strategies above, leaders need to account for one more factor: intersectionality. That is, the compounding discrimination people face when they hold multiple identities. When it comes to pay, data consistently shows that intersectionality plays a role in widening pay gaps, as women who are also black or latina face larger pay gaps than white women.

To account for intersectionality, you’ll need visibility over not only gender, but also other employee demographics that impact pay. It will also help to ensure that the pay equity strategy aligns with the greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy, and that DEI stakeholders are kept in the loop on pay equity initiatives.

Conclusion

Clearly, the answer to how to close the gender pay gap is not simple. It requires a holistic approach that includes implementing fair pay policies, promoting pay transparency, monitoring decisions and more. Still, by addressing these issues collectively, organisations can strive towards achieving equal opportunities, economic empowerment for all genders, and business success.