If I put my optimist hat on, there has been much to celebrate in 2018 from a gender equality perspective. From the bravery of the #MeToo movement and the scale of the support the survivors have received to the celebrations for the centenary of women’s suffrage, from the advent of gender pay gap reporting to, of course, Jodie Whittaker as Dr Who.
Yes, there have been setbacks too – Brett Kavanaugh, Philip Green and the jaw-dropping comments of some of the chief executives interviewed for the Hampton Alexander Review, for example. But with more and more women finding their feminist voice, and behaviour that would have been ignored not so long ago now being routinely challenged, it genuinely feels like there is the beginning of real change in the air.
So, as we started planning year two of our "Out of office" campaign for the Women’s Equality Party to mark Equal Pay Day, we were feeling pretty positive. The 2017 activity had been a great success: thousands of people switched on their "out of office" and we generated masses of press coverage for the initiative. All of which is really important for a campaign with no media spend that’s entirely dependent on partnerships and participation for impact.
So, looking forward to 2018, we had a long list of the people who’d said no in 2017 ("Too risky until the gender pay gap reporting is out of the way") who would surely be supportive in year two? After all, if the "bad" news of your pay gap is in the public domain already and you have the chance to take part in a campaign that shows your support for solving the problem, why wouldn’t you take part?
Well, how naïve and wrong we were to assume 2018 would be easier.
Because it quickly became apparent that the new air of progress and optimism around gender equality appears to have done the opposite of what we’d hoped. It may have given individuals the courage to speak up, but rather than liberating corporations to show their support for good initiatives, it seems to have made the shutters come down almost entirely. Let me share with you a few choice morsels that have landed in my inbox over the past few weeks:
"We just can’t be supporting anything this confrontational."
"We take our pay gap very seriously, it receives constant monitoring and obviously it’s top of our corporate agenda. But we can’t support the campaign."
"It’s a great initiative and I love it, but I’m afraid I’ve hit a brick wall again. HR just think it’s too risky."
The risk (perceived or actual) attached to supporting a campaign like this is easy to understand, but not to excuse. Because non-participation helps no-one.
It drives the issue back behind the closed doors of the corporate boardroom, which is bad news for employees hoping for real change. It limits public debate and engagement. And it stops the corporations that are making progress, or at least those making valiant efforts to effect change, from getting the support and recognition they deserve.
As Bill Moyers put it: "Secrecy is the freedom tyrants dream of." And when corporations are scared to be seen to be supporting an initiative that they think is well-intentioned and aligned with their own corporate priorities, all it does is breed more secrecy and more opacity around an issue that deserves transparency and focus.
Even the most optimistic among us knows it will take many, many years to close the gender pay gap. So, no-one can realistically expect a corporation to have eradicated theirs in less than a year. But surely it’s better to send a signal to your employees, your suppliers, your shareholders and your competitors that you are progressive thinkers with a desire to do what’s right, rather than take cover behind the corporate parapet and let Equal Pay Day go by unmarked?
Pay equality is a long way off, but by keeping the issue on the agenda, forcing the difficult conversations and increasing understanding, we might just bring it a bit closer.
If you’d like to take part, there’s still time. All you have to do is paste the copy below into your email "out of office" and turn it on.
Kate Waters is co-founder and chief strategy officer at Now
Out of office. For the rest of the year.
Not really. I’m just making a point.
Today is effectively the last day women in the UK are paid to work. Because of the gender pay gap, the average woman is working for free until the end of the year.
So, if women aren’t getting paid, why should they work?
The pay gap on average is 17.9%, but for some women it’s even worse.
If, like me and the Women’s Equality Party, you think it’s not OK, you can help show your support by copying this message and switching on your "out of office" too.
Click here to see what you can do to help close the gap.
#OutOfOffice for #EqualPayDay @WEP_UK