Employers could be named and shamed for gender pay gap breach

Shame is relative. That’s the first thing. Some shame is minor. 

Take, for example, inoffensive me, having a solo cup of coffee on Friday in the St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre because I had arrived early for a nearby meeting. 

Up stumped this total stranger, who stood in front of me in a challenging way.

“Holy Faith Convent, Clontarf,” she said. Accusingly.

I nodded. Guilty as charged. That’s where I went to school.

“You were a swot,” she stated. “You and your sister. Swots.”

Now, this would have been true of my sister, who, at eight, received an end of year report describing her as “Cailin an-mhaith, an-duthrachtach.” [A very good, very diligent girl.] 

Me, not so much. But did that matter to the accuser? Not a jot. 

Down all the days since school, she had clearly saved up for the opportunity to tell me off.

I took it like a woman and asked her about herself. 

She’d practiced as a doctor in South America and Australia and faced unimaginable dangers, the telling of which seemed to reduce her rage at me to the extent that, as she left, she told me she blamed our parents, rather than my sister and me. 

Which is fine, really. Once they’ve provided shelter, food and heat, blame is what parents are for.

The episode does, however, go to show that if you run up against something shameful at a formative stage in your life, it stays with you. 

Which in turn means the legislation coming down the track about the gender pay gap, initiated by Ivana Bacik but now bought into by pretty much all of our legislators, is going to carry reputation risk for any company revealed to have a substantial gap between what it pays women and what it pays men. 

It’s going to be particularly relevant to recruitment, because it will shape how job applicants see a particular company. 

In a full employment economy, that matters, because the onus shifts from having to prove yourself to a potential employer to demanding the potential employer proves itself to you, the job applicant.

When the new law comes into operation, it’s going to be less fun but more corporately significant than when the Revenue Commissioners publish their defaulters’ list each year. 

That one is a name-and-shame exercise like no other. It’s the best fun, going down through the names to see if you know anybody mentioned.

Usually, three or four are well known. Some of them shut up and go stay with their aunt in Brighton until interest wanes in the enormous sum they’ve had to cough up, comprising the money they should have paid earlier on, penalties for not paying it when they should have, and interest on everything including their Holy Communion money.

Some of them, eager not to be seen as the Bernie Madoff of their parish, issue terse statements indicating that they greatly appreciate the Revenue bringing this accounting error to their attention (nothing directly to do with me, Guv, just something my idiot accountant missed) and that their happiness at sorting it all out knows no bounds. 

The famous are always present in these lists, but the majority of those named and shamed amount to no more than a twit down the road who developed unjustified notions about their own smartness.

We all enjoy not figuring in the lists and we are just a little ashamed of reading them.

The gender pay gap issue is a different can of worms altogether, according to a seminar held last week by Arthur Cox. (Vested interest declaration: They don’t retain me or my company and I wasn’t paid to be there.) 

This seminar set out to make sense of what’s coming down the tracks, which, given the wording around the bill, was seriously necessary. 

That wording describes the bill as requiring “regulations to be made that will require certain employers to publish information relating to the remuneration of their employees by reference to the gender of such employees for the purpose of showing whether there are differences in such remuneration referable to gender and, if there are such differences, the size of such differences and to require such employers to publish statements setting out the reasons for such differences and the measures (if any) taken, or proposed to be taken, by those employers to eliminate or reduce such differences...”

To clarify that lump of wet cement: The new rules don’t touch on equal pay for equal work. 

If you have a job and you’re a man, and I have the same job in the same company doing the same work, then the law already says we get paid precisely the same amount, and that’s right and proper. 

What the new legislation sets out to do is look at companies which employ, say, 500 people. 

Let’s assume a company of this size employs 250 men and the same number of women, but its annual report show two thirds of the payroll expenditure goes to the lads. 

That would be gender pay inequality, and that’s what the new legislation aims to tackle.

The present difference between the gross hourly earnings of women and men was made clear back in 2013, when the EU Commission revealed that on average, women in the EU earn about 16% less per hour than men. 

What the new legislation is going to do is zoom in to a big close-up on individual companies of a certain size, and that’s where a national average that is no more than inflammation can become a raging individual corporate boil.

Speaking at the seminar, legal eagle Kevin Langford didn’t lower himself to using phrases like “raging individual corporate boil”. He did, however, indicate that boil-prevention would be a good idea.

“Employers should start preparing now for the legislation,” he said. “Appoint a team within your organisation — which should include the CEO or the CFO — to manage the information gathering and reporting process. 

"Interrogate your pay data to determine if you have a gender pay gap and its extent. Accuracy of reporting will be key. CEOs will have to sign off on it. 

"When you are satisfied with the accuracy of your gender pay evaluation, start working on your narrative — the reasons you have a gender pay gap and the measures you are taking to address it. 

"You will need to explain this to your employees and the public at large.”

You will, I thought, nodding. Oh, you will. And don’t come running to your PR people claiming this is a communications issue. 

It won’t be. It will be a reality issue. 

Every company to which it’s going to apply should do the research now and if an unconscionable gap appears, should take steps to begin to fix it before the new law goes into operation.

Or stand shamed, reputation in rags around its ankles, in front of a generation of the graduates — the brightest and best — the company needs to recruit.

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