Focusing on big business misses a trick in the push for gender parity
A view from Jonathan Trimble

Focusing on big business misses a trick in the push for gender parity

Jonathan Trimble, chief executive and founder at 18 Feet & Rising, on how he plans to eliminate his agency's gender pay gap.

In February 2016, 18 Feet & Rising welcomed one of its homegrown, Anna Carpen, into the top creative slot. We didn’t appreciate at the time that a natural evolution for the company would coincide with a flash point in the industry - and the world - in a push towards gender parity.

Part of that push has been the introduction of new UK legislation requiring private businesses with at least 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap figures. Crucially, this excludes SMEs, a group which accounted for 99.3% of all UK businesses at the start of 2017 and 60% of the private sector workforce. For context, this is the likes of Ella’s Kitchen, Naked Wines and Beauty Bay, just to name a few.

Clearly the opportunity for change is dramatically reduced when these businesses are excluded – especially since the SME community is at the heart of disruption, innovation and progression.

It surprises me that the government hasn’t done more before now to encourage SMEs to publish their data and contribute to the conversation. My hunch is the authorities want - for now at least - to contain the debate.

Meanwhile, there’s a chance we’re missing the opportunity for real strategy in small and innovative businesses. Companies that can develop frameworks early, so that the muscles of the organisation are set-up to reap the benefits of a balanced and creative culture in the long-term.

These frameworks are where change should be focused. Instead, the tactics become too tempting, especially with most pay gaps making for grim reading - for example, "well, if only we promoted or hired so-and-so, our numbers would look different."

?Larger companies and conglomerates naturally engage in these, as it’s harder to adapt once you’ve scaled. They have enough people on the bus to do so, and it’s simpler to get a few of them to move seats. This is a dangerous game. The best talent spots this and it’s not long before they start seeking other opportunities. Gaming a system can only go on for some time without addressing the system itself.

Nowhere to hide

As an SME, you have nowhere to hide. To improve the data you must address the system that produces gender inequality, then respond with more generous policies and cultures that actively give women a voice, and so undo systemic bias.

Once the numbers are laid bare, the work starts. Rather like contrast fluid that’s used in medicine to analyse how blood flows through the heart it’s about understanding the male/female "flow" through the organisation. It’s a framework that’s easy to establish - HR captures a lot of this, you simply consolidate it into one place and start to spot patterns, good or bad. Above all, it helps stop what’s currently circumstantial from becoming systemic.

At 18 Feet & Rising, we have positive female representation and equal pay at partner level (possibly in and of itself rare). Meanwhile, the main body of the company shows a 44% positive pay bias in favour of women.

However, our management team is entirely male and therefore the most significant driver of our own overall gender pay gap of 28.8% mean, 12.9% median - above and below the provisional 2017 national averages of 17.4% mean and 18.4% median (Office for National Statistics).

In our case the data clearly showed what was driving the gap. While we represent well at the top of the company and within the company overall, that critical all-male, sub-layer of management has a systemic significance in the aim of gender equality and gender pay parity.

Parenting and career breaks to look after children surfaced as one of the most critical issues to address in relation to this. This topic doesn’t hold any silver bullets but we’re working with our long-term people partners, Clyde & Co, to build on our own policy, which already offers enhanced shared parental leave to those with three years' service.

Deeper than policy is, of course, culture. There is some worrying research from Harvard Business School for those in creative businesses. Conducted at the end of last year, it showed that in working teams men get credit for voicing ideas, but not problems. Women get credit for neither.

This tells us that leaders must accept they need more active awareness; an awareness they may not have grown up with or noticed until now. Those inside our company vouch that having female representation at the top, in our case Anna, makes a critical difference.

18 Feet’s pay gap numbers may not entirely reflect the progressive nature of the organisation we have, which in part shows how embedded the issue is. But what has emerged are some systemic points of intervention.

Our aim is pay gap zero by 2020, which means carefully tracking how a positive bias in the main agency develops up into mid-management. Our experience, whilst initially painful, has certainly helped us push further and I encourage others to do the same.

I’d also encourage the government to look at those with, say, 50 to 250 employees, or over £10m in turnover, or even to the gig economy, and to consider how these businesses publishing could vastly speed up the pace of change. After all, if we only focus on 40% of private sector workers, we’re at serious risk of changing what goes on in the shop window and ignoring what goes on in the shop itself.