What role should professional recruiters play in closing the gender pay gap?

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Professional recruiters are in positions to influence and make a difference to pay disparity

The extent of pay differences between men and women in the UK workforce has now been officially exposed following the requirement for large firms to publish the salary details of their workforce. More than three-quarters of the organisations who published this information are, on average, paying male staff more than females. Furthermore, the data has shown us that all sectors have a pay gap that favours men.

It’s not an area in which executive search firms and other recruiters have traditionally taken an active role. But we’re conscious that our interactions with our clients and candidates come at a crucial stage and provide opportunities to address the pay gap, albeit on an individual basis. The causes of pay inequality between sexes are multi-faceted and complex. It can be argued that every section of society needs to make changes to achieve equality in this area and professional recruiters are no exception.

The recently-published pay gap data does not tell us whether men and women are being paid differently for the same work (a practice that has been illegal since the 1970 Equal Pay Act) but it does show us that women are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid jobs within companies in every sector. This can be down to several reasons such as women being more attracted to certain occupations and a greater number of part-time roles being filled by women.

But another key aspect, and something that professional recruiters can influence, is that more senior (and therefore higher-salaried) roles are currently occupied by men than women. This contributor to the pay gap is largely established during recruitment processes.

In our experience fewer female than male candidates apply for senior roles. There may be several wider-societal reasons for this, such as a lack of role models or the fact that more women work in part-time roles making many senior-level positions appear closed to them. Furthermore, they may be put off by the prospect of joining senior teams, which are often predominantly male. But there are several measures professional recruiters can take to encourage women that these roles are attainable for them as well as working with our clients to create an equitable recruitment process for all candidates, and to play our part in reducing the gender pay gap.

First, encouragement. There is significant evidence to show that women are often held back by a ‘confidence gap’, which may lead them to believe they aren’t qualified for roles that they could excel at. An effective way to increase confidence is making efforts to meet potential future candidates outside of ongoing assignments to discuss their career ambitions and offer guidance and advice in an informal setting.

When sharing a job specification for a particular role it is also constructive to remind candidates to focus on the areas in which they have talent and skills rather than being overly concerned about areas where they feel they have less experience.

Second, positive action. There is a lot of evidence to show that we hire and recommend people who we see as similar to ourselves. So it’s crucial that during the process we make sure we approach a diverse group of people when asking for recommendations. We aim to approach as many women as men during this stage and find that it has a clear effect on the gender balance of our candidate fields. We should question whether 30% is enough.

Third, understand bias. Being aware of unconscious bias and ensuring the shortlisting team and interview panel has female representation can make an enormous difference and we can remind and encourage our clients to focus on a candidate's skills and competence rather than experience or time spent in similar roles (a practice that might put women at a disadvantage as they are more likely to take career breaks for family responsibilities).

Finally, support equality at negotiation stage. We have seen situations where female preferred candidates do not appear to push as hard on salary offers as their male counterparts. It’s important that we are conscious of this, and seek to support a fair outcome.

It will take more than one industry to level the gender pay gap but we all have a role. Professional recruiters are intermediaries and we are in positions to influence and make a difference to pay disparity. I think that’s something we should take responsibility for if we want to see greater equality in the workplace.

Kerry Shepherd is co-founder of Minerva

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