Britain's Gender Pay Gap: Trying to Narrow It

Posted May 14, 2018 12:33 p.m. EDT

LONDON — A law firm is giving female lawyers more flexible work schedules. A technology giant wants to increase the ranks of its female engineers. And a media company is recruiting greater numbers of women to mirror its client base more closely.

New rules in Britain requiring companies to publish the extent of their gender pay gap have spurred a far-reaching debate over inequality in the workplace. Businesses — the vast majority of which pay men more than women — are increasingly being shamed into action.

The hurdles are plentiful. Men hold most high-level roles. Women take more time out of work to look after children. Higher-paying sectors, like sales and those requiring technical skills, are dominated by men.

What, then, can be done?

‘Me and 30 Other Guys’

When Stella Worrall started working as a field technician last year at Virgin Media, she felt more than a little conspicuous.

More than 96 percent of the company’s field technicians, who install the boxes and cables that deliver television and broadband services to people’s homes, are men. Some of Virgin’s technical sites did not even have women’s toilets. And the environment could feel intimidating because there were simply no other women around.

“My training was me and 30 other guys,” Worrall said. “It was quite daunting at first.”

Virgin reported a median pay gap of 17.4 percent, meaning that women earned around 83 pounds for every 100 pounds earned by men (100 pounds is about $140). Women make up half the company’s customers but only 29 percent of its staff, and female clients are increasingly requesting female field technicians to install Virgin’s media services at home.

To meet the demand, Virgin Media, a subsidiary of Liberty Global with about 13,000 employees, is widening its recruitment net. It has experimented with all-female sets of interns, and requirements to have one woman on every short list for a vacant job, said Catherine Lynch, Virgin Media’s chief people officer.

The company has also sought to increase the proportion of senior women through mentoring and by encouraging women to apply for promotions. That has raised concerns that some women promoted were younger than usual or lacked experience in the departments they were moving into.

Lynch insists, however, that the moves will pay off. At the moment, only a quarter of the highest-paid people in the company are women.

Worrall, who worked part time for several years, was promoted to technician after just eight weeks of training.

“We’re trying to identify who might be the shining stars that we can fast-track a little bit with a bit more sponsorship,” Lynch said.

“I don’t think we’ll always have to do that,” she added. “There will come a tipping point where the momentum will have been created.”

Working the Law

In 2015, Claire Clarke became the first female managing partner at Mills & Reeve, a British law firm. At the time, about 28 percent of the firm’s partners were women.

In recent years, Mills & Reeve has tried to do a better job of recruiting and retaining women, in particular by promoting part-time work. The firm hoped that would help with the difficulty of juggling onerous working hours with motherhood.

It was an issue Clarke, the mother of four, had to deal with herself. “I have to go through the school calendars and schedule the parents’ evenings, school concerts, sports days into my work calendar,” she recounted.

Despite the part-time push, Mills & Reeve has made little progress. Last year, in fact, the proportion of women who were partners at the firm was slightly lower than when Clarke started, creating a median gender pay gap of 34 percent.

It is a challenge mirrored in the industry. Women make up more than half the solicitors at law firms in Britain, but only 28 percent of the partners, according to Britain’s Law Society.

Several law firms offer part-time work. But the option is one used by about a third of the women at Mills & Reeve and 7 percent of the men.

Staff needs still have to be balanced with client demands.

For major law firms in Britain, clients often expect round-the-clock availability. Roles with more responsibility, and higher pay, often come with tough deadlines — whether for filing documents with a stock exchange or wrapping up the acquisition of a company.

Nearly half of all respondents to a survey for the Law Society said the profession required an unacceptable work-life balance to progress to senior ranks. Working mothers, as a result, often default to one of three main options. They opt for more flexibility, which results in their working fewer hours than male counterparts; stick with areas of practice with fewer fast-moving transactions; or head for internal roles at corporations.

“Law firms can’t put this in place without taking into account the needs of their clients,” Clarke said.

Turning Up in Tech

Myfanwy Edwards spends a lot of time at universities, encouraging women to study technology and engineering.

Edwards, a programmer and engineer who has worked at the Japanese technology company Fujitsu since the 1980s, has risen through the ranks and now works with management to recruit and promote women.

When she was hired, most of her colleagues at Fujitsu’s offices in Britain were men. So were most of the company’s clients.

Like many big companies, Fujitsu found that its gender pay gap stemmed mainly from an underrepresentation of women in senior management roles and in more highly paid areas, especially technical and sales positions.

To rectify that imbalance — women in the British operations are paid a median of 82 pounds for every 100 pounds earned by male colleagues — it has sought to promote female engineers and the work they do.

After rotating through different departments, Edwards was in 2014 the first woman to be named a “senior distinguished engineer,” a companywide award. Today, 16 women have received those accolades. She was later elevated to an exclusive 10-person group of fellows that decides who will receive the distinguished engineer awards — but she is the only woman.

One of the biggest challenges is figuring out ways to increase the gender parity in the pipeline: only 16 percent of Britain’s graduates in science, technology, engineering and math last year were women. Fujitsu is aiming to have women make up 20 percent of its engineers, 30 percent of its sales force and a quarter of its senior managers by 2020.

To get there, the company is focusing on recruiting. Edwards visits universities to encourage women to get into technology and engineering. Last year, at least half of all new apprentices were women, up from one-third in 2014. Occasionally, a male colleague will challenge Edwards for pressing a feminist agenda.

“I say no — it’s all of our problem,” she said. The more gender equality conversations occur in the workplace, she added, the more men recognize the issue and are willing to support it.

“There is a problem that is being talked about, and men are going, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t think of that.'”

Women in Wine

Majestic Wine is a rare company in Britain — its gender pay data revealed that it pays women more than men.

That was mainly because most male employees work in lower-paid warehouse jobs, stacking wine pallets or lifting heavy loads.

Still, Majestic says it is eager to get even more women out front at its stores.

The only thing that Hannah Butson knew about reds, whites and rosés when she applied for a job at Britain’s biggest wine retailer was that she liked to drink them.

But when Majestic Wine ushered her into training for a professional wine qualification, her ambitions grew. After intensive courses in wine tasting and blind taste tests, “it was really easy to describe a wine,” she said. She was soon a senior assistant manager, and she now helps run a large store near London’s financial district.

In a traditionally male-dominated industry, she remains one of the few women helping customers at the company’s 210 British outlets. Two-thirds of Majestic’s 1,500 employees are men, and only about a quarter of applicants for jobs are women.

“There is that real conception of an old man, swirling a glass, explaining all these flavors that they’re getting from a wine,” Butson said.

By having employees like Butson running tastings and finding wines for customers, Majestic is hoping it can throw off gender-related preconceptions about wine — and become a more attractive employer for women.

It is hard to get female recruits in the door, said Sarah Appleton, the company’s head of human resources.

To attract more women, Majestic adjusted its job postings by dropping requirements for previous industry experience, to avoid evoking an image of wine as mainly a man’s domain. (Recruiting language that seems masculine or feminine can create barriers and discourage women from applying, studies show.) It focused only on necessary skills and emphasized that wine knowledge could be taught within the company.

“If we require wine industry experience, the wine industry is male-dominated, so we’re fishing in a pool of men,” Appleton said.

Butson has seen changes already. She is working in a store with women for the first time since she started in 2016. Two of her three female colleagues applied for jobs after attending wine tastings.

“It’s just about getting rid of that stigma that it is a male-dominated industry,” Butson said.