Addressing the gender pay gap: employer methods

This report presents the findings of 14 interviews with employers in the private and public sector.

This document is part of a collection

4. Actions to Reduce the Gender Pay Gap

Employers reported a range of actions that could potentially address the pay gap. These included strategies to address potential recruitment barriers facing women, flexible working practices, supportive maternity policies, methods to ensure the development of female talent and the promotion inclusive organizational cultures.


The Language of Job Adverts

Many employers were concerned with the potential for gender bias to influence recruitment processes. For example, there was an emphasis on ensuring that wording of job advertisements and descriptions did not contain implicit bias. As one respondent noted:

We're certainly trying to use very neutral language in adverts so as to avoid the use of what would be more male-associated adjectives. So we're trying to be more conscious about that…We always need to be very prudent when we're doing adverts and make sure that, where possible, we're not being seen to be expecting it be a male that would apply for that job (HR Manager, Technical Services Organisation. 501-1000 employees)

A range of potential forms of gender bias were discussed, including emphasis on certain attributes which might be unintentionally exclusionary. As Amiqus explained:

Traditionally sales roles will be an aggressive approach …not willing to take no for an answer, batter down doors, etc. That, again, has been proven to make it less likely that a female candidate would apply. Things about saying 'you must be an exceptional achiever' or something. Again, female candidates are less likely to consider themselves exceptional and be a bit more modest about it, whereas a male candidate isn't. So it's just about toning it down, you know, pointing out that we're an inclusive place to work, that we're a supportive place. We want to encourage people. (Head of People. Amiqus Resolution Ltd, Digital Legal Services, 11-50 employees)

Similarly, Scottish Water emphasized the importance of ensuring that job descriptions genuinely matched the current requirements of the role, rather than unnecessarily making jobs sound like a series of challenges:

Is the language there because it's historically been there and nobody's ever thought to challenge it? ...We went through a definite thought process in our recruitment team of 'how does this ad look? Does it feel right for an applicant?'…For me it's just kind of challenging anything that doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, even if that's the way things have previously been described. (David Hanlan and Darren May, Specialist HR Consultant and Performance & Reward Lead. Scottish Water, Water Utility. 1001-5000 employees).

These discussion are encouraging, particularly given the important role of occupational segregation within the labour force in creating the gender pay gap. The extent to which these changes influence application rates, shortlisting and hiring rates will be an important question for future research.

Engaging with Procedural Bias

In addition to ensuring a balanced applicant base, employers were also keen to ensure that their procedures for hiring were unbiased. One important dimension of this is transparency on salaries, which may reduce the importance of salary negotiation and mitigate the effects of already being on a low salary. This was explained by Amiqus:

In recruitment, the norm is that, if you go along for a job, someone will ask you 'what are you currently paid'…so if you are underpaid, then you are not going to get a huge jump. It's really difficult to then progress if you're already underpaid…Instead of asking candidates 'what are you on at the moment', what we'll do is we'll advertise the salary and when we interview them we'll ask 'What are looking for? What are your expectations?' Head of People. Amiqus Resolution Ltd, Digital Legal Services, 11-50 employees)

Other examples included the development of knowledge around unconscious bias, as well as, in the case of Deloitte, removing names from CVs:

…we had to adapt our recruitment process, including introducing name-blind CVs and adapting other aspects of our process. We've trained all of our recruiters in respect and inclusion and unconscious bias…….now we're up to around 43% female students and by next year I'm confident we'll be at 50%. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees)

Unconscious bias training was a consistent theme within the discussions about recruitment and the interview process, with many employers emphasizing its importance. This finding, which is unsurprising in the context of the existing literature, is nonetheless interesting given the mixed findings in research about the effectiveness of these methods.

Hymans Robertson offered another approach to inclusive recruitment, emphasizing the importance of assessment tools that were gender balanced:

We have continued to review our recruitment processes to make them as inclusive as possible - this has included using gender neutral wording in adverts as well as using different forms of assessment having taken into consideration research that shows men and women excel in different recruitment techniques - in our graduate recruitment, for example, we use a combination of skills tests, strengths based interview techniques, and aptitude tests. (Sally Haran, Head of Talent Management. Hymans Robertson LLP, Financial Services. 501-1000 employees)

It is certainly positive that so many organisations are engaging proactively with their recruitment practices. However, there are important limitations with recruitment focused approaches which are important to recognise. First, while recruitment based strategies are certainly consequential, they are likely to be only one of many factors that produce occupational segregation, i.e. the tendency of men and women to cluster in different occupations and sectors. Second, at least insofar as these developments are focused on entry-level or graduate positions, the influence of recruitment on the overall gender pay gap may be limited if the distribution of women and men in senior positions remains the same.

Flexible Working Practices

Another strategy that may reduce the gender pay gap is the availability of flexible working hours. In practice, this means the ability for employees to fulfil their work commitments outside of the traditional set hours of 9 to 5 or, alternatively, work reduced hours. Within the sample, is important to note that these practices had not, in all cases, been brought in with a specific focus on gender, and the longevity and formality of the practices varied within the sample.

In some cases, flexibility could be understood as available in a relatively informal manner. As one respondent in the food sector noted in relation to an employee:

What we have been able to offer her, and I think she really values, is flexibility. She's able to work from home and she's quite open with the fact that she'll take time back in lieu…we're quite relaxed about her fitting other things into her day when she needs to, even if that's like an exercise class at lunchtime or the afternoon or whatever that might be. The owner and I were really passionate about that when we started the organisation…We didn't have the happiest time individually working in the food and drink industry from time to time…it can be quite a dated industry and quite a traditional industry where you're expected to show face between the hours of 8am and 5pm…they're your hours, you'll be there. We didn't value that, we didn't think that was the way to go...When we started the organisation we wanted to create a team environment that was nice to work in. (Anonymous, Food & Drink Sector, 1-10 employees)

At Prepress Projects, by contrast, the flexible working policy was relatively formal, and had been developed in response to the need to provide flexibility for women with childcare responsibilities:

We have flexible working as a policy for everybody, so people can start work at any time of the day. Our offices open at 7 a.m. in the morning and close at 6:30 p.m. We have core working hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Anybody can come and go as they want as long as they do their set number of hours in the week and meet all of our client demands. (Operations Director. Prepress Projects, Publishing. 11-50 employees)

A different approach was found in the co-operative context. At Greencity, the capacity to work flexibly was at the discretion of individual teams, which could democratically make decisions about the planning of work tasks. In this context, they had recently changed their manufacturing working practices to reduce the length of the working week:

Because it's a working co-operative, if a team decides to re-arrange their working day, as long as that rearrangement doesn't overlap and affect another team, then we're always welcome to hear suggestions and look at different alternatives. Pretty much every team has got autonomy within the wider business model…For example, our manufacturing team in the last six months have come away from five seven hour days to three twelve hour days. (Scott Erwin, Member Director. Greencity Wholefoods, Food Production and Wholesale, 11-50 employees)

Another example of a flexible working system, which had been accompanied by a high degree of innovation in working practices, was found at Scottish Water. Here:

We're one of the few businesses I'm aware of that has the four stage model of free, fluid, fixed and field…so jobs will be allocated to that structure, and within that, people will have an element of freedom. So, for example, a free worker will be free to choose where they wish to work from. So it's more based around the outputs that they're driving forward…that then gives females and males that have childcare responsibilities for example, the option to possibly say, I don't need to physically be within the office today, and can work from home, take a break in the middle of the day to deal with something else, then log in again later. And whether that's related to taking care of a child, as long as the outputs of work are happening then they can control how they want to do it. You do need supportive processes around agile working, for example line managers who are comfortable with not seeing their team all of the time. That can be a challenge. (David Hanlan and Darren May, Specialist HR Consultant and Performance & Reward Lead. Scottish Water, Water Utility. 1001-5000 employees).

As above, one important distinction that emerged in the research was between companies which emphasized local, informal arrangements and those that had developed formal procedures which they had sought to make integral to their working practices and their appeal as employers. At the same time, the specific constraints of occupations will influence the extent to which flexible working can be implemented. However, there appeared to be several benefits associated with companies developing dedicated, formal strategies to change their cultures towards flexibility.

Several employers described a pronounced cultural and practical shift towards embedding flexibility in their working practices, which had the additional benefit of ensuring that flexible working was seen as something that could benefit everyone within the organization. For example, Standard Life Aberdeen reported that:

We have changed the conversation about agile working this year, so that it's no longer about a focus on part-time working mothers, and much more about how we create an agile, modern workplace that suits a multi-generational workforce, that is attractive to talent, and that fits our global business…So agile for us is about considering how and where and when is best for you to carry out what you need. We've published guidelines for our people on agile working, and are sharing case studies of what's working for different teams across the business. This is helping create a shift in our culture. (Heather Inglis, Senior Global Inclusion and Diversity Manager. Standard Life Aberdeen, Financial Services. 5001-10 000 employees)

A similar sentiment was expressed at Deloitte:

I would say that back in 2013/2014, we predominantly had a culture of presentee-ism in that, if you couldn't see someone under your nose, you assumed they weren't delivering. And whilst we had lots of options to work flexibly, what we hadn't really done was look at whether they actually fit with the business…so we went right back to basics… and one of the issues was that there seemed to be a stigma attached to flexible working. Now 93% of our people have taken advantage of some form of informal agile working….that's huge and it's a massive change for us. And the way we've done it is calling out that if you get this right you will be a really successful organisation…and if you lead your team well you don't need to see them to know they are committed. You trust and you respect them. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

Another strategy developed by Deloitte was the incorporation of additional unpaid leave into contractual working arrangements in order to allow people to pursue non-work responsibilities without disrupting their career:

We invented something called 'Time Out', which is an award winning scheme, which is effectively the ability for all our people to take a month unpaid leave every year, in addition to their other leave, at a time that suits them and the business. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

A strong benefit of innovation around working hours was that it could potentially address the uneven accumulation of full-time work experience amongst men and women, which can contribute to the gender pay gap. Another compelling example of this was the emphasis on compressed hours for women in senior positions that had been developed at HIE. As they reported:

We've extended our flexible working around variable working hours, as well as around part-time work, so we have quite a few people who are doing full-time compressed hours and that tends to be available across all of the grades. Particularly with women who've maybe had a break from their role while they're bringing up a family, flexible hours means that can come back and continue to work full time at a relatively senior grade. If we offer them compressed and flexible hours, this can fit in more easily with their family commitments while still fulfilling their work commitments. Over the years, I think that being able to work full-time on a flexible basis that has made the biggest differences in terms of enabling women to remain in more senior roles. (Equalities Manager. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Government Agency. 201-500 employees).

The above examples demonstrate how flexible working arrangements, while not always brought in specifically as a strategy to reduce the gender pay gap, could have a myriad of benefits for people with caring responsibilities. For committed employers, it was also possible to ensure that these practices became mainstream rather than marginal in their organisations.

Supportive Approaches to Maternity

In addition to working practices that were family friendly and supported employees with additional caring responsibilities, many companies emphasised their approaches to maternity leave. As noted in Chapter 2, research indicates that, given the nature of the labour market, the influence of maternity women's careers may be an important contribution to the gender pay gap. A summary of some of the specific policies that had been adopted included the following, as summarized by Hymans Robertson:

We have introduced a more consistent approach to managing and supporting returners from maternity, adoption and extended shared parental leave - this includes support in the lead up to the period of absence, understanding the level of contact the individual would like from the firm whilst they are off, allocating a buddy to support people in their return (for example, someone who might have recently returned from maternity leave), and a reintroduction programme to make the transition back to work as easy as possible. (Sally Haran, Head of Talent Management. Hymans Robertson LLP, Financial Services. 501-1000 employees).

Hymans Robertson were also an example of an employer that had improved their provisions for parental leave, in part to encourage a more equal division of caring responsibilities. It also removed the need for employees to complete a probationary period prior to receiving maternity, paternity and other child related benefits:

As a business we want to be progressive and be able to attract and retain the very best talent. We also want to see a better gender balance throughout our organisation, particularly at the more senior levels. An important part of achieving this is to provide an environment which supports family friendly policies and that provides families with more flexibility and options as they balance caring responsibilities and work. The steps we have taken to do this include enhancing our shared parental leave policy to pay both parents the same rate of pay - this is paid at our enhanced maternity rate rather than at statutory shared parental leave rates. We have also reviewed our policies to attract talent and remove as many barriers as possible to people joining us. We have introduced a number of changes. From day one, everyone who joins the firm gets access to our enhanced benefits and pay for maternity, paternity, parental, adoption and shared parental leave - previously, people had to be employed by the firm for 6-12 months before they could access these more generous benefits. We have also removed probation periods from our contracts of employment to ensure we are being as inclusive as possible and not unintentionally putting in place barriers to people joining us. Our next focus is to introduce a new carer policy that recognises the broader caring responsibilities in society, beyond being parents. (Sally Haran, Head of Talent Management. Hymans Robertson LLP, Financial Services. 501-1000 employees).

Manager training was also an important focus, emphasised at Deloitte:

We've introduced working parents' transitions coaching. A big issue for us was our returners from maternity leave were not having the right conversations - something that our coaching programme now encourages. We've also introduced mandatory line manager training for anybody that has a primary carer in their team, so they understand what it is like going back into the workplace. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

The emphasis on support and 'having the right conversations' was referenced in many contexts. Scottish Water - who had also retained a generous system of benefits that exceeded the statutory minimum - illustrated their approach to supporting those taking maternity leave in the following terms:

I know that, we talked earlier about the Future Leaders programme, which in fact is 50-60% female...I know that there have been women selected to go onto that when they are pregnant, and it's known that they are pregnant and women themselves have said 'Oh, should I really be going onto that when I'm obviously going to be taking a break to have children?' And as an organisation we've been supportive in saying "No no. Do what you can. Do what you can. You've been selected on merit and the fact that you have something more important to go and do for a while, i.e. have a child….that's fine, but you're still on the programme and we'll pick it up when you come back." (David Hanlan and Darren May, Specialist HR Consultant and Performance & Reward Lead. Scottish Water, Water Utility. 1001-5000 employees).

At GCU, emphasis was put on the importance of culture in relation to maternity related career interruptions:

…are you creating the opportunity for the next generation? Are you saying "I'm going to make sure you don't have go through the same level of challenge as I had to go through, because actually it's too important for us not to waste your talent."…For that comes absolutely down to leadership…It's less about the technical elements, which are important, it's about, what are the cultural cues, what are the messages you are permeating through your behaviour? Through, even things like, when you decide to have meetings. (Director of People and Equality and Diversity Advisor. Glasgow Caledonian University, Higher Education. 1001-5000 employees)

Another set of policies developed specifically in relation to career breaks associated with caring roles were various 'return to work' programmes, in some cases available to both men and women. As Deloitte noted:

We introduced an industry-first return to work programme - aimed at women but open to all - for people who had taken a career break of more than two years. They are typically joining us at manager and senior manager level. And that's not necessarily people who've worked for us, they may be have worked for other people. Incredible individuals who could not find a way to get back into the workplace, and we have brought them back in, with an aim of getting them onto permanent or contract roles straight after the internship programme. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

Standard Life Aberdeen were another example of a company that had successfully piloted a 'return to work' programme. They evaluated the experience in very positive terms:

We found that really successful and the business areas that were involved in the returner pilot were hugely encouraging about the quality of the candidates that they saw coming through They were able to come back in at a reasonably senior level, and, with very little support, work at that level really successfully, after having been out of the workplace for, in some cases, up to 10 years. So that for us was a great way to test whether we could broaden the diversity of our talent sources at mid-career to senior levels, and we're now intending to scale this up. (Heather Inglis, Senior Global Inclusion and Diversity Manager. Standard Life Aberdeen, Financial Services. 5001-10 000 employees)

The above are good examples of the sorts of innovative and supportive policies that can be developed in relation to maternity leave. As these businesses emphasized, progress in this area could be understood both in terms of dedicated policies and initiatives as well as in terms of fostering inclusive and responsive cultures which engaged pro-actively with maternity related work transitions.

Career Progression

Several larger organisations also emphasized that the importance of ensuring that their talent pipelines promoted gender equality. A recurring theme in the data is the overrepresentation of men in the upper pay quartiles of organisations and the influence of this on overall gender pay gaps. For instance:

In common with many organisations, the mean gender pay gap arises as a result of a higher proportion of men than women in senior roles. The Company has set a target to achieve a 50:50 gender balance across the top 25% of roles by 2023. To support attainment of this, a range of measures are in place to support career development and progression through the organisation to these roles. (HR Manager, STV, Broadcast Media, 501-1000 employees)

This finding, in turn, had informed the development of strategies to ensure that women had access to leadership development, training and opportunities for promotion. In some cases, this meant ensuring that all leadership training and development programmes were gender balanced and that there was organizational transparency about how such programmes were accessed. In other cases, mentoring was used to ensure that both men and women had ongoing career development in their roles. One example of a highly focused development programmed was described by Deloitte:

We then introduced other programmatic interventions, such as a manager development programme for our high potential female managers - we introduced this because we realised that manager level was a point where we typically would see some of our people start to float around the surface or disappear below the surface and we believed that we needed to intervene to make sure that they did get the sponsorship that they needed and that they were getting exposure to the right sort of projects. We are firm believers that we don't need to fix our women - however, we do need to ensure that our women get access to opportunities that will enable them to shine. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

Another example of policy to improve the representation of women within the upper levels of the organization was found at Hymans Robertson. Here, they had altered their pre-existing organizational structure in order to facilitate greater gender balance at the senior level:

We are reviewing the makeup of all of our governance bodies, making changes where necessary to ensure that their membership is fully diverse. An example of this is opening up non-exec Board and Partnership Council appointments to our full partner group. Previously these could only be filled from the equity member group of 19 which included only one female. This change has opened up opportunities to a significantly larger and more diverse pool of talent (80 people). (Sally Haran. Hymans Robertson LLP, Financial Services. 501-1000 employees).

At GCU, respondents emphasized the importance of ensuring that their promotion processes did not solely operate in relation to employee tenure, given that this could potentially disadvantage women due to their different average levels labour market participation. As they observed:

I think in any organisation you go to, it's not whether you've got 20 years service, it's about whether you're experienced…we tend to just assume that time served is a proxy for capability, and we shouldn't…There will be some correlation between experience and expertise, but it shouldn't be the only one. And that comes back to making sure that we ask the right questions. (Director of People and Equality and Diversity Advisor. Glasgow Caledonian University, Higher Education. 1001-5000 employees)

Inclusive Cultures

Another recurring theme within the interviews was the emphasis on developing inclusive workplace cultures which maximized the participation of all workers. While these policies were not solely concerned with gender, they had the potential to reduce the extent to which organisational cultures excluded women. Some examples also explicitly engaged with bias, and may contribute to reducing the role of stereotypes and assumptions that may negatively impact women at work.

An example of a particularly innovative practice for encouraging diversity and inclusion was found at Amiqus, where workers produced publicly available 'user manuals':

As part of the on-boarding we get people to do a user manual, so they're all shared…The user manual is about how do you like to work, how do you like to be contacted, what hours do you work, what do you not like, all that sort of stuff…not everyone works the same, some people are morning people, some people aren't. We want people to do their best work…and what we find is that in giving people that freedom, people are productive, and certainly, from what I've seen, probably more productive here than a number of places I've worked previously where they had very set parameters about what they could and couldn't do. (Head of People. Amiqus Resolution Ltd, Digital Legal Services, 11-50 employees)

Standard Life Aberdeen emphasized the importance of cultivating a sense of accountability throughout the organization for encouraging and integrating diversity. As they reported:

Our focus is very much about creating inclusive environments by making everyone feel like they have a part to play in this…It's about making sure that everybody feels that they influence the workplace that we come to. (Heather Inglis, Senior Global Inclusion and Diversity Manager. Standard Life Aberdeen, Financial Services. 5001-10 000 employees).

In this context, there was a strong emphasis on developing online materials that teams could use to facilitate discussions around inclusion and diversity:

We have short, engaging inclusion tools which can be used 'just in time' (before recruitment, or a talent review, or a team conversation, etc.) to allow people to facilitate that inclusive leadership journey in a way is appropriate for them, or their team, or their business area, rather than having a prescribed set of mandatory unconscious bias e-learning or similar, which doesn't always have the desired effect. (Heather Inglis, Senior Global Inclusion and Diversity Manager. Standard Life Aberdeen, Financial Services. 5001-10 000 employees).

An emphasis on training staff to be aware of their own biases also emerged in the data. HIE reported that:

We make sure that anyone coming into the organisation is aware of the fact that we've got some training modules around equality and diversity, and we encourage them to go through those modules to help them understand how aware they are of their own biases. (Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Government Agency, 201-500 employees)

At Deloitte, there was a strong emphasis on ensuring that the workplace culture was sufficiently inclusive and that inappropriate behavior in the workplace was adequately addressed:

Previously, people worried about raising things because they didn't think the issues were 'big enough' to warrant formal reporting to HR. Also, if it was their line partner involved or manager involved they were nervous about formally reporting. So we created respect and inclusion advisors (of which we have 39 today) - people that are not HR; they are leaders in our business that people can go to for guidance, impartial advice in a confidential way. The existence of these advisors has really helped in ensuring that our people feel able to call out behaviours that they believe are counter to our commitment to respect and inclusion. (Emma Codd, Managing Partner for Talent. Deloitte LLP, Professional Services, 17,000+ employees).

This example, in particular, took a strong stance on the potential for discriminatory behavior to negatively impact on career progression and retention.


The findings above indicate a range of policies that may reduce the gender pay gap within organisations. The practices emphasised by participants included gender sensitive recruitment practices, ensuring that women are afforded equal opportunities to progress their careers, making flexible working available, improving maternity policies and ensuring that cultures are diverse and inclusive. These developments may, in turn, inform ongoing policy development in this area.

In terms of recruitment specifically, engaging with business through mechanisms like the Scottish Business Pledge to develop gender neutral hiring practices may contribute to ongoing progress here. Other aspects of the Scottish Government's Gender Pay Gap Action Plan can also develop these initiatives while potentially extending their reach.

For example, efforts to encourage more widespread adoption of flexible working may improve our knowledge of what works, while encouraging more widespread adoption of these practices. Similarly, funding a Women Returners Programme, committed to by the Action Plan, can both draw upon the lessons from the projects described above, and encourage their adoption amongst a wider range of employers. The Action Plan will also continue and expand the Workplace Equality Fund, which will work with employers and trade unions to improve workplace practices, for the benefit of women with a particular focus on supporting women who also have other protected characteristics.

The goal of studying the feasibility of extending the provision of free childcare in the Action Plan is also potentially valuable, in that such developments, as discussed in the next chapter, relate to a particularly important challenge in addressing the gender pay gap.



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