Christine O'Neill: Gender gap about lot more than headlines

I was interested to read Sarah McParland's views on the 'myth' of the gender pay gap (4 February), which resonated with me. I have sympathy with her frustration at 'headline' research findings on the overall pay gap between men and women that attract much more attention than the diverse experiences of individuals in different working environments and, indeed, at different times in their careers.

Picture: PA

The big picture is of course important and discrimination remains a real and serious issue (not only in relation to pay levels and not only on gender grounds). I also know that discrimination can take a range of forms and that “unconscious bias” is a real phenomenon. I am concerned, though, about suggestions of unfairness across the board that could undermine the expectations of new entrants to the job market (especially women) that they will be properly rewarded. For me, unsurprisingly, that is a particular concern given the Law Society of Scotland’s most recent research on the demographics and work patterns of Scottish solicitors.

Launching its report last year the Society’s press release began “For some female solicitors, Friday, 31 July marks the point after which they are effectively working for free until the end of the year.” Attention grabbing, as all good press releases should be, but not the whole picture, with the society acknowledging that there are many and nuanced reasons for pay differentials. The trouble with headlines and bald statistics is that they tend to get repeated and become received wisdom. That brush can tar not just a business sector, but all organisations in it.

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It’s dangerous to assume one’s own experience is typical. Nevertheless it seems obvious to me that pay equality (which we know we have achieved for the solicitors employed at Brodies without resort to re-engineering reward strategies) depends on many more factors than the existence or absence of bias. It first requires a commitment to creating – and communicating – a common understanding of the skills, behaviours and achievements that will influence reward.

This needs to be supported by a strong system of appraisal and assessment that is taken seriously by all staff, both appraisers and appraised. The time and effort involved in delivering that system can’t be underestimated, but it provides our business with a strong foundation on which to make decisions about reward and about career progression. A clear and transparent appraisal structure makes it more difficult, I am certain, for conscious or unconscious bias to survive.

It is also important to recognise that each of us has priorities and commitments that impact on our approach to working life and, in turn, overall reward. We strongly support flexible working arrangements for men and women (including partners). There is no reason why those arrangements should, and I don’t believe they do, impede career progression.

Equally, we all know of friends and colleagues who have stepped back from promotion opportunities to commit more time and energy to their family (or indeed to other interests).

Those decisions are the product of a range of factors, only one of which is the level of support and encouragement offered by an employer. The reasons why women make up the majority of those who make these choices needs a much deeper analysis than an appeal to discrimination in the workplace.

I would much rather have that more difficult conversation than read banner headlines that suggest a universally negative picture for women in the workplace. At Brodies we want all talented and hard-working people to believe they can progress in their careers through what they bring to the business and our clients, not because of or despite their gender.

l Christine O’Neill is chairman of Brodies LLP