Sara Tate
Sara Tate
A view from Sara Tate

Flexible working will help close the gender pay gap – let's make it the norm

The ad sector can start tackling the gap in earnings between men and women by offering long-term flexible working, but it involves thinking differently about more than just the location.

All eyes are on the gender pay gap this week, in light of the 5 October deadline for gender pay gap reporting for those companies with 250 or more employees. In a year (or rather 18 months) like no other, it’s perhaps inevitable that reported figures may not tell the whole story, with the exceptional circumstances all workplaces have been operating under.

In the UK, many women have actually seen their employment opportunities go backwards during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who have caring responsibilities – be this for young children, the elderly or the vulnerable – are at risk of being “sidelined”, whether that means less responsibility, working fewer hours, furlough or redundancy. Inevitably, this tends to be women, and particularly those from ethnic minorities and lone parents, all of which has served to widen the pay gap.

It’s high time agencies looked beyond the numbers and considered what tangible actions they can take to ensure the pay gap narrows. Government data released this week has shown one in four ad agencies has a gender pay gap of at least 25%. The good news for leaders is that, while there are many root causes of the gender pay gap, there is one factor that can be relied on to reduce it – flexible working.

Women in Advertising and Communication Leadership’s #FlexibleFirst programme has championed this position during the pandemic, inspired by research which proves that access to flexible working enables more women to stay in the workforce for longer, often maintaining their hours and salary and reaching more senior positions. 

But we also believe it goes beyond this. Flexible working in today’s workplace is a must for everyone – irrespective of gender. In fact, recent data shows that 87% of both men and women in the UK want to work flexibly, rising to 92% amongst 18- to 34-year-olds. So how can agency leaders create flexible work practices that are no longer a one-off crisis response, but the sustainable norm?

It’s not just about location. Post the pandemic and various lockdowns, it has been easy to confuse flexible working with working from home. Now it’s time for a different interpretation. Think part-time, job-sharing, hours that may be outside the default nine-to-five, term-time working. Flexibility can be applied equally to amount and time, as well as to the place, of work.

Design the job from the ground up and with input from all parties involved. Be open-minded and constructive. If requirements and goals are clear from the start, there’s less chance of conflict or misunderstanding further down the line. You’ll need to consider hours, whether the role can be full- or part-time, where work needs to be carried out and any dependencies that come with the role. If the role entails working closely with another employee, you’ll need to design the job requirement that best fits both their needs.

Shout about the benefits, for the agency and the employee. Research has shown flexible working can inspire a more diverse workforce as well as improve levels of motivation and retention. With regards to women, it allows more of them into the workforce in the first place and creates conditions that engender loyalty. This also opens up opportunities to progress and earn more money by taking on more senior roles, ultimately leading to leadership and board level positions – arguably where the gender pay gap has always been at its widest. Wacl advocates that all roles in your company be advertised as flexible from the start.

Think creatively. The pandemic showed just how quickly and easily businesses can adapt to new working practices, whether it’s pitching online, taking Zoom phonecalls with ease or getting to grips with tech. So let’s continue in this vein; to implement flexible working, try some new approaches. This could mean transforming a full-time role into a job share, focusing on outputs rather than time spent working, deciding where the most appropriate location is to maximise objectives and setting boundaries, so staff are not “always on”.

Above all, keeping in touch is key. Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind, and it’s vital to be actively inclusive of flexible workers, factoring them into the way the company communicates and how meetings are set up. They need fair access to career conversations, and regular reviews to assess whether flexible working is appropriate for the individual as well as the team. In this way you can avoid creating a two-tier system, and the whole workforce will be completely inclusive of flexible workers.

Sara Tate is Wacl leader in the campaigning committee

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