You can't always get what you want...

Blog posts

23 Apr 2014

Dilys RobinsonLinda MillerDilys Robinson and Linda Miller

‘...but if you try some time, you just might find, that if you're a woman in work then you probably still won't get the pay or the grade you deserve.' 1

Mind the gap

A casual reader of the HR press could be forgiven for thinking that the progression of women in the workplace is no longer an issue. The recently-published Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2014 contains many big companies that are household names, as well as a sprinkling of public sector organisations. In addition, recent statistics indicate that, for women aged under 40 in the UK, the pay gap 'has virtually disappeared.' 2 3

A closer examination of the statistics, however, reveals that the picture is not quite so rosy. For older women, the pay gap has remained virtually unchanged since 2005 4 with the average difference across the population of working women and men being 19.7 per cent. 5 That gap is calculated across occupations and working arrangements. Part of the overall gap in later life derives from the fact that women remain far more likely to work part time, and the majority of part-time work opportunities are still to be found only in lower-paid, lower status jobs. A separate, more insidious contributory factor is that those who work part time are less likely to be viewed by their employers as serious contenders for organisational advancement.

However, statistics show that even for those women who continue to work full time, advancement may prove elusive. Despite efforts to encourage the recruitment of females to Boards, they remain only a fifth of Directors of FTSE 100 companies. Take a closer look at this statistic, and it emerges that just 6.9 per cent of Executive Directors are females, while 25.5 per cent of Non-Executive Directors are female.

Furthermore, the rewards for those women who do manage to progress into senior positions remain significantly less than those for men - the pay gap between women and men in managerial, director and senior official posts was a staggering 20.2 per cent in 2013. The Chartered Management Institute has estimated that at current rates of progress it will take 98 years for the pay gap to disappear.

Econometricians such as John Forth have broken down the various contributions to the pay gap. Clearly a large proportion of the gap derives from the occupational choices that women make - far more choose to enter jobs in lower-paying sectors such as retail, care and hairdressing. Even with progression up the organisational hierarchy, jobs in those sectors compare poorly in terms of remuneration with those in the sectors that attract larger numbers of men, such as engineering. It is for this reason that organisations such as the (then) Equal Opportunities Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have focused during the last decade on the need to ensure that young women know the facts about potential pay in the various sectors.

That said, when such analyses of the components of the pay gap are undertaken, a proportion of the gender pay gap remains - even after controlling for sector, hours of work and qualification level. Usually estimated at around 2 - 5 per cent, this residual is attributed purely to gender. In other words, it arises from treating people differently according to whether they are female or male. Most people would call this discrimination.

And man promoted man in his image

More often than not there is a combination of issues acting in concert that serves to hold women back. For example, where an organisation does not have an objective succession planning or talent management strategy in place, this often leaves decisions about development opportunities in the gift of the individual line manager. Often this means it is the male employees who are considered first. As one of the women we interviewed as part of our work examining female progression into top jobs on behalf of the Foundation of Coaching said:

‘It comes down to who gets the assignments and if a company doesn't have a really objective succession process [in place], then once again who gets the assignments are the men, it is just the way it works. Where I have seen it be successful is where you have really got a true succession process where you evaluate your high potentials and you fairly rotate through those assignments, then that works. Otherwise, you are going to end up with the same situation and the woman is not going to get the development.’

Researchers such as IES Principal Associate Wendy Hirsh have observed that while this type of development arrangement tends to favour men over women, formal talent management arrangements, too, can perpetuate 'old boys' networks'.

The Paula Principle

Recently Professor Tom Schuller has raised his concerns that many women work below their level of competence. He has set up the website The Paula Principle ( to explore and discuss the reasons for this. He notes that, in almost all OECD countries, females outperform males at school, in university, and in terms of their participation in CPD. But while the 'human capital' of women in the workforce is growing, the 'pay off' isn't there:

‘Women's human capital is now significantly greater than men's, and the underlying trend is still for the competence gap to increase. But the effects have been remarkably slow to show themselves. Career paths remain flatter for women. We know that there are few women at top levels, but this means also that women do not get promoted at lower levels.’

Professor Tom Schuller

So, while the news about pay for women in the early career stages is encouraging, without action to address the failure to recognise, reward and develop female talent, women will continue to work below their level of competence. At an individual level this is a tragedy, but at a national level this failure to fully utilise our human capital is a disaster. Many ministers have pointed to the need to make better use of our female talent.6 The real question that remains is why employers are so difficult to persuade on this point. Any real progress will remain beyond our grasp until employers see the benefits of reviewing outmoded employment practices.

Every picture tells a story

While actions can be taken to address identified problems with development and progression mechanisms within organisations - and over time doubtless this will help - nonetheless much of the problem remains bound up in that difficult-to-nail-down concept of 'organisational culture'. People talk of organisational culture proving to be a 'turn off' and leading in the end to some women choosing to stop trying to fight to get on (and indeed we heard such stories as part of our work on the barriers to progression for senior women) but the messages sent are sometimes so strong they inhibit any desire to enter some sectors.

Some time ago, researchers at the Open University and Middlesex University analysed photographs used in advertisements between May 1993 and March 1996 from the magazine Personal Computer World, in particular looking at the roles in which men and women were depicted in photographs used as illustrations in advertisements (Turner and Hovendon, 1997; Turner, 1998). Out of a total of 363 photographs used in pictorial advertisement (excluding repetitions), only 71 featured females alone compared with 226 showing men alone. Of the women shown, the majority were shown in secretarial or administrative positions. Many used women merely as decoration, to draw attention to the equipment or service on offer. Out of a total of 25,000 pages surveyed, only nine positive images of women were found.

Many people may say at this point 'Ah, but that was nearly 20 years ago. Surely things have moved on since then?' One would have hoped so. But in fact Tom Schuller has recently repeated the exercise on a smaller scale, looking at images of women and men shown in adverts for MBAs. Do go to his site and have a look at It looks like there's still a long way to go!


  1. With apologies to Messrs Jagger and Richards
  2. The Right Hon Maria Miller, MP, writing in the Huffington Post:
  3. Department for Culture, Media & Sport (2014) Secondary Analysis of the Gender Pay Gap: Changes in the gender pay gap over time
  4. DCMS, ibid.
  5. Based on hourly earnings
  6. When Patricia Hewitt was Minister for Women she said that the UK's IT skills gap could be solved 'at a stroke' if employers could be persuaded to recruit from all of the population rather than just half of it; in March 2014 the Right Hon Maria Miller MP, the then Minister for Women and Equalities observed that 'so much talent is suppressed by outdated attitudes and outmoded practices' and urged employers to do more to facilitate the employment and progression of women.

About Linda Miller

Dr Linda Miller, Senior Research Fellow at IES, has been conducting research into the under-representation of women in the workforce for nearly 20 years. Her work has included an international study for the Foundation of Coaching in New York of the way in which coaching can be used to help women to advance into Board positions; she served as advisor to an EU project that examined the impact of policy measures for gender equality in science across all member states of the EU; and she was a member of Baroness Greenfield's working group that examined factors affecting career opportunities for female scientists. She has led teams that examined good practice in advancing women in the workplace in London, for the GLA, and across Denmark, the Republic of Ireland and the UK for the Women and Equalities Unit and (the then) EOC.

About Dilys

Dilys was formerly employed by the NHS, where she held a variety of HR and project management posts at Regional, District and hospital level. Dilys’s main areas of experience at IES are employee engagement, workforce planning and forecasting, and evaluation.


Receive emails with new blog posts