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The truth behind WPP's gender pay gap groundhog day

Despite the focus on equality, the pay gap remains stagnant at many WPP agencies and, indeed, the wider industry.

The truth behind WPP's gender pay gap groundhog day

"The solution is not to hold another women’s group in the evening, drink a glass of warm white wine and carry on business as normal," Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise, sums up the frustration with the lack of action when it comes to embracing flexible working to close the gender pay gap. She explains: "There is a clear link between the diversity you have in your business and the flexibility you offer."

In the year since WPP published its first gender pay gap figures the conversation surrounding equal pay and flexible working has evolved significantly. Notably, with Publicis rolling out flexible working across the entire company. Yet the stagnant pace of change at many agencies (J Walter Thompson's pay gap is one third in favour of men) suggests there is more to do.

Ali Hanan, chief executive of Creative Equals, says that, thanks to government policy of reporting the gender pay gap, it is on everyone’s radar – and yet many companies are regressing. But she is not surprised by this failure to progress. Hanan believes the industry is facing a "massive retention issue" when it comes to female talent: "Few companies are invested in doing their homework where it really matters: on themselves. That’s what our Equality Standard does and why Campaign champions it with their School Reports."

108 years from parity

Earlier this year, research from the World Economic Forum showed that the world had closed 68% of its gender gap in 2018 – a mere 0.1% improvement on last year. Of course, it takes time for initiatives to translate into meaningful change, but at the current rate of progress it will take 108 years for the global gender gap to close entirely.

The drive to close the gap at many agencies may also be further hindered by the number of women seeking to exit the industry altogether. Hiring senior female talent is a key tool to close the gender pay gap, but a significant percentage of that talent pool is opting out. According to data from Creative Equals, 11% of women in creative agencies are looking to leave the industry over the next two years, compared with 5% of men.

Current gender pay gap analysis also suffers from a lack of intersectionality because there is limited data on the impact of ethnicity. The government is currently consulting on proposals for mandatory ethnicity pay reporting as part of a series of measures to help employers tackle ethnic disparities in the workplace. Only about 3% of large employers have so far voluntarily reported their ethnic pay gaps. One of the few companies to do so, ITN, found that its black, Asian and minority-ethnic employees were paid 21% less per hour than white employees.

Lack of transparency

In light of these figures, employees could be forgiven for believing we are fast approaching gender pay gap groundhog day. Cindy Gallop is palpably frustrated with this lack of progress: "I have a feeling I’ve said the same thing to you regularly over the years, but here you go."

According to Gallop, there are two very simple ways in which every agency can close the gender pay gap immediately. "They just have to pick one," she explains. "One, raise the salary of every single woman in the agency to match the salary of the men working at her level. Or two, lower the salary of every single man in the agency to match the salary of the women working at his level."

She continues: "Women will massively appreciate the motivation of the first and put even more creativity and hard work into the agency than they already are. Shareholders will massively appreciate the dramatic cost-cutting and profit margin increase of the second, and clients will massively appreciate the substantial savings in time-cost-based fees."

Closing the gap

The glare of the media spotlight does mean some companies are making progress on bridging the gap. AKQA’s median gender pay gap has improved by 8.9% to 21.6%. Recognising this is above the national average, the agency has put into place a three-year plan to close the gap further. Ron Peterson, managing director at AKQA, points to the lower representation of women in senior leadership positions as the key challenge for the agency to address.

"Our data shows some encouraging movement, but more emphasis is needed on increasing the representation of women at senior-level positions to address the imbalance, as shown by the data in the top two pay quartiles," he explained. "AKQA’s progression programme is central to this; aimed at the next generation of senior leaders, this year-long initiative promotes and encourages leadership potential. The programme provides the necessary encouragement, support and training to ensure our future AKQA leaders are equipped for success and, in 2018, eight out of the 10 attendees were women." 

Meanwhile, AKQA has launched matched shared parental leave with its enhanced maternity leave package. As well as focusing on driving flexible working (15% of staff have formal flexible working agreements, but the company recognises that many work flexibily on an informal basis), it has also identified gender-neutral job descriptions and inclusive interview processes as key to driving change in recruitment moving forward.

This approach reflects the fact that, in a competitive marketplace for talent, agencies' gender pay gaps are becoming a key facet of their brand. "Diversity brings many benefits – knowing it is vital to our ability to be an employer of choice, to provide meaningful careers for our people and ensure our clients have the best solutions," Peterson adds.

The investment gap

The creative industries suffer from a lack of transparency surrounding pay levels and salary banding. A wealth of job titles can bring a wealth of confusion when it comes to benchmarking salaries. Although sites such as Glassdoor and apps including Fishbowl are ushering in greater clarity when it comes to pay, many women simply do not know if they have pay parity with their male colleagues. When you add in the impact of unconcious bias and a renumeration system that is based on what employees are already earning, it is easy to see why change is not only glacial, but in some cases going in the wrong direction.

"It is very frustrating to see situations where the pay gap is getting worse," Joanne Lucy-Ruming, managing director at recruitment consultancy Major Players, explains. The company is about to release its salary survey for 2018 and it is seeing a similar pay gap to 2017 of around 20%. 

Yet there are tangible steps businesses can take today, Lucy-Ruming adds: "Ultimately, HR and business leaders need to start inside their company – start with the women working for them that are earning less and increase their salaries tomorrow."

Major Players has also advocated a step change in recruitment – notably, the practice of getting paid on the basis of existing salaries that perpetautes inequality. Lucy-Ruming explains: "For future hiring, we feel that divulging current or previous salaries is a huge factor for women not reaching pay parity with their male counterparts. For hiring, people should be assessed on their experience and skills, not what they’ve been paid previously. Major Players has stopped asking for salaries and passing on to our clients. We feel this will make a positive impact and help close the gap, but companies need to get on board and take action themselves.

"A thorough and fair way to asses someone’s ability to do a job is to set expectations for the role, outline skills and experience required, and follow a thorough interview process."

With more companies addressing the fact that the lack of senior women is key to bridging the gender pay gap, action-based solutions are clearly top of the agenda.

This is already happening when it comes to tapping into the potential talent pool of women who have taken extended career breaks. Thirty-six companies that have signed up to Creative Equals’ returnship scheme are a reflection of the momentum around the organisation's #CreativeComeback push. Yet as Hanan stresses, while it is great that the industry can focus on bringing female talent back, it needs to ask why they are leaving in the first place.

Why women leave

Creative Equals data lead Ozoda Muminova, who is also founder of The Good Insight, looked at the organisation's data set of 1,600 people employed in creative agencies to unpick why women are leaving advertising. Here are her key findings:  

  • Men are twice as likely (36%) to be in a leadership role compared with women (19%).
  • Women are 11% less likely than men to feel they have equal opportunities; they are 11% less likely to agree with the statement that parenting won't stop their careers from progressing.
  • Women are less likely to feel their leaders are fully committed to diversity; they don't feel work is allocated fairly within their departments.
  • Women are 10% less likely to have their work entered for awards.
  • 11% of women are looking to leave the industry over the next two years compared with 5% of men.

Source: Creative Equals


The gender pay gap: key explanations

Any gender pay gap is a reflection of a form of inequality. Companies either do not have equality in more highly paid management or leadership positions, or they have unequal pay (where men and women are not paid the same for doing the same job – something that employers have a legal obligation to do). The third scenario is a combination of these two factors. 

The gender pay gap is a measure of the difference between the average earnings of men and women across an organisation.

Equal pay refers to men and women in the same employment, performing equal work. 

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