My first experience with unequal pay was a personal one. Myself and Brendan Courtney (my business partner of 15 years) were working together as presenters on Irish television in 2008 when we discovered we were on different rates of pay for doing exactly the same job.

I remember being incandescent with rage. The sheer injustice of the situation left me with tears of frustration literally pouring down my face.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not a cryer but, in the face of such fundamental unfairness, I found I had nowhere else to put it, emotionally. I knew my experience was by no means unique and was being replayed in offices and boardrooms around the world.

In 2011, I founded the ‘Dress for Success’ social enterprise in Ireland, providing workplace styling and career consulting to help women meet their professional potential. The service was a huge success, but it quickly became clear to me that increasing women’s confidence was not enough to tackle pay inequality.

I’d become aware of systemic issues that were functioning like invisible landmines, exploding at different ages and stages of women’s careers. The result of these inequities is the gender pay, opportunity and pension gap.

In 2013, with the newly formed Work Equal, I established the Gender Pay Gap campaign and Equal Pay Day in Ireland, which marks the day women effectively stop earning until the following year.

At the time, the gender pay gap wasn’t talked about like it is today. People thought I was making it up, or peddling some anti-man “third wave feminism gone mad” propaganda.

Today, Work Equal is a leading voice in the fight for fair remuneration, advocating for equality at local, national and global level. But it’s not been an easy journey.

Equal pay and the gender pay gap are two very different things and a lot of confusion remains. ‘Equal Pay’ has been enshrined in Irish Law since 1974 and in UK law since 1970. The law states you can’t pay two people a different amount for the same work.

The gender pay gap captures the mean and median difference in earnings between men and women in an organisation, sector or territory.

Pay gap reporting for SMEs is coming – don’t bury your head in the sand

The huge changes we’ve seen in the last decade are proof of how, with the right conversation, messaging and engagement, real change can happen.

All change starts with awareness, and we are a much more aware society than we were. I find this incredibly heartening.

This change in awareness, the ongoing war for talent and increasing legislation around pay transparency means that the gender pay gap discussion is not going to go away.

For UK businesses with over 250 employees, pay gap reporting is now mandatory.

Ireland will, next year, be reducing their reporting threshold to 150 employees. In Iceland – the most gender equal country in the world – the threshold for gender pay gap reporting is 25 employees.

There is a clear direction of travel here, and my advice to SMEs with fewer than 250 employees is to get ready for reporting now – don’t wait!

Have the courage to say “this is where we are now, and the only way is up”.

Beginning now will enable you to understand your current position and identify easy wins to move the dial before you have to reveal figures publicly.

Set a target for International Equal Pay Day on September 18th, or the next Equal Pay Day, where you’ll publish what you’re doing to mitigate against the pay gap for the other 364 days of the year.

I see this as a fantastic opportunity to stand up and be counted; to show your customers who you are and how you treat your workforce.

Overcoming the forcefield of fear

One of the main barriers to tackling the gender pay gap is fear of organisational upset. In any business you’ll find a cohort of incumbent leadership who may recognise their staff have issues that they should be dealing with, but are afraid of saying the wrong thing, causing offence or getting cancelled.

At the other end, the staff are fearful of raising the issues in case they’re viewed as ‘whingers’.

These two groups, who both know that there’s a problem, aren’t talking to each other. I call this the ‘forcefield of fear’.

The solution is to create a culture where these challenging conversations can happen, moving beyond workplace policies and enabling people to engage as humans with other humans.

A terror of saying the wrong thing is stifling these key conversations when, in fact, the people fanning the flames of ‘cancel culture’ are rarely the people who are being affected by it.

My advice to leaders looking to start these conversations is to go and have a cup of coffee with people who are different from you. Listen, and ask them:

  • • What are the challenges?
  • • What do you want to see fixed?
  • • What’s your ideal scenario?
  • • What do you see as the easy wins?

Understanding issues from your staff’s perspective, rather than telling them what you think the issue is, will foster change more quickly and more authentically.

Men and the gender pay gap: It’s not ‘I win, so you lose’

All rights are fragile. We need to protect the rights we’ve fought for, and move forward at the same time.

Recently, I was invited to a European Parliament Committee on ‘the erosion of women’s rights in Europe’. To be in that room in 2019 and have that as the title on the door was a stark moment.

Rights get eroded when people are afraid of being displaced so, as campaigners, our responsibility to advocate for positive change while bringing everybody with us is enormous.

The fear of displacement makes the role of men in the advancement of women’s rights at least as important as that of women – if not more.

The gender pay gap is a challenging issue for a lot of men, who feel they’re being sidelined. But it isn’t a case of ‘I win, so you lose’. It’s a case of “let’s make this better for everyone”.

Workplace equity removes the requirement for men to be performatively adversarial and commanding.

It gives men permission to be vulnerable (and to be powerful and courageous, all at the same time).

2013 Deloitte report on covering found men were deterred from stepping up as Allies for their female colleagues, not just due to fear of backlash from men, but from women.

Men are unsure if they have agency or permission to speak up on behalf of women: does that just look like Mansplaining? Or taking charge (again)? Part of my work as a consultant is enabling men to step into the Ally role, fear-free.

You’ve identified a gender pay gap. Now what?

The first thing is to understand where you want to get to, and by when.

Next, build a plan that’s right for you on how to get there.

Don’t be afraid – take comfort in the fact that there is a huge will to make positive change.

Work Equal research in Ireland found 74% of people believe closing the gender pay gap is important and should be a priority for government and employers.

This is the right thing to do. I recommend four main courses of action as a starting point.

1. Bring in mentoring, consultancy and support from third parties

I always recommend mentoring as an incredibly powerful tool for organisations. It can be instrumental in creating active learning safe places – spaces where people feel safe to have difficult conversations. DEI consultants can facilitate change much more quickly and meaningfully than when you try to go it alone.

2. Start at the senior level.

Actively creating greater equity in your senior leadership and board can make a huge difference. “Leading from the top” also facilitates role-modelling, where both male and female leaders can demonstrate a different way of leading – they can say “I’m going to pick my kids up” or “here’s something I find challenging”.

This allows people throughout the organisation to admit to vulnerability and speak up about issues when they need to. The long-term impact is a happier, more productive work environment, and that benefits everyone.

3. Involve everybody

Siloing different groups to represent different identities has a role to play in terms of giving voice to those particular cohorts but – in my experience – only if it sits under an overarching umbrella for cultural change. Everybody has to belong in the mission to evolve the culture of the company.

4. Review your pipeline for female employees

Active pipeline management, engaging with representative groups who can expose your hiring managers to new pipelines you didn’t have before, can drive profound changes for equality in your organisation.

This might be reaching new networks of women, or migrants – anything that throws the recruitment net wider will ultimately benefit the entire company.

Above all, remember that your gender pay gap report, on its own, means nothing. What matters is not just the strategy but the action plan and the time-bound nature of the action plan to deliver results.

If you need help moving forward after your pay gap report, you can talk to me about consultancy, or check out Mix Diversity’s gender pay gap service.

What’s next for pay equality?

We’ve come a long way, but pay equality is an ever-changing arena and there’s still much to do. Here’s what I’ll be campaigning for next:

• Make reporting data easily accessible
With the introduction of mandatory reporting, there is a huge amount of data floating around. In order to make sense of the data and spot and analyse trends, we need a central platform to store it all.

• Establishment of an ‘Equal Pay’ kitemark
In Iceland, all goods and services that perform to a level of workplace equity carry a kitemark to say “we are an equitable organisation”.

This enables customers to make informed decisions about the companies they want to support, based on their values.

Bear in mind that consumers are doing this anyway, by researching who’s on the Board of companies and seeking out robust ethical and environmental policies. An Equal Pay kitemark is, to me, the natural next step for gender pay gap reporting.

• Moving the dial on childcare and parental leave
One of the key pillars of pay equity that needs a huge amount of work. In Iceland, affordable, sustainable universal child care was cited as one of the three levers that had contributed to its becoming the most equal country in the world.

The other two were mandatory shared parental leave and the establishment of an ‘equal pay’ kitemark. Read more about my trip to Iceland and what we learnt.

There’s work to do, but I’m heartened by the changes that have been made and what the future will bring.

For me, Equal Pay Day – which marks the day in the year when women effectively stop earning until the following year – should be a New Years’ Eve party.

I want to be celebrating Equal Pay Day when it no longer exists.

Sonya Lennon

Sonya Lennon is a prominent keynote speaker and skilled MC, a designer, businesswoman and multi-award-winning social entrepreneur. Sonya has recently completed a Masters in Business Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and works at board and senior leadership level to advance inclusive work cultures. Through her drive for workplace equality, she has spoken at a national and European level, and global conferences.

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