The gender pay gap, fear and the power of listening to understand

By Business & Finance
12 April 2023

Sonya Lennon is Founder & CEO of WorkEqual, an Irish charity that supports people to succeed at interviews. On Friday 12 May, businesses will come together to support WorkEqual and its quest to close the inequalities and gaps that exist.  WorkEqual is delighted to be supported once again by One4all, Diversity in Tech Awards and Mantra Strategy.

For over a decade, with Work Equal, I have advocated for government and business leaders to address structural inequities in how we live and work in Ireland. When I began, I’m not going to lie; the landscape was hostile. 

In 2011 I founded Work Equal (formerly Dress for Success), an organisation that supports people to succeed at interviews by giving them the clothing, mindset, messaging, and confidence to land that job. Initially, we focussed solely on women, as mandated by our licensing body. We rebranded to reflect our service better. Increasingly we are serving more men in need of support. This makes sense to us as an organisation that stands for equity and inclusion. 

Landing the job was never the end goal. Our clients are clients for life and can return to avail of a ‘workwear wardrobe’ financial literacy programmes, mentoring, networking and other programmes.

We were making a difference by supporting our clients and also creating a viral effect of ‘a new normal’ grounded in higher self-esteem that goes beyond the client into the consciousness of their children, sisters, brothers and mothers. Around 2013, we realised we were trying to fix the problem by fixing the individual. When, in fact, that was only a tiny part of the problem. We were launching these newly confident employees into a landscape strewn with invisible landmines, unconscious bias and ways of working designed by and for men. 

We chose a target to address; the Gender Pay Gap. More specifically, closing it. I coined the term Gender Pay Gap Deniers; so pervasive was the ridicule we faced in the media. But thankfully, we didn’t give up. 

Cut to ten years later, and I’m just finishing what seems like a grand tour of slick auditoria, restaurants and canteens hosted by over 50 companies in Ireland that want to be more equitable. 

In 2021 we saw legislation enacted for mandatory reporting for companies with over 250 employees. But before we know it, that number will have shrunk to 50. 

This has meant that compliance is a very real issue for many companies, and many more to come. There is a lot of fear out there. 

Closing the gender pay gap is, by any standards, a wicked problem. The good news is that there is a mindset that can help. At the risk of adding to the overuse of a phrase, we are where we are. It doesn’t matter how bad your scenario is, how bad your gender representation is, or how male your senior leadership team is. What matters is that you acknowledge the issue and set time-bound actions to improve it. 

It’s a bit of an ‘I, Spartacus’ moment. The numbers on their own may well be spiky and unpleasant. As a business leader, your role is to understand why they are that way and what you can do about it. 

I’ve had deep-throat-style conversations with well-meaning business leaders in male-dominated sectors telling me they are terrified. They are paralysed by the unpalatable position they find themselves in. 

The good news is there are proven actions that can make a real and immediate difference. Then, if you tell me that the problem is outside of your control, I will ask you some hard questions about what you can do to put it back in your control. ‘Oh, it’s a pipeline issue. We can’t get the women’. Not good enough. Squeeze recruiters for balanced panels, begin outreach, get into your local schools and own the long tail. 

Here’s what I’ve noticed from this year’s exploits, the conversation has matured, there are more men in the room, and they get it. There is still a residual sense that this redress might be a zero-sum game, but the research says differently. Economist Professor Linda Scott says there is a minimum extra 20% to unlock in GDP in any country that empowers women to thrive in their economy. We’re not trying to elbow men out; just create environments where everybody can experience collective belonging and go the work feeling valued and heard. 

I do an advanced listening exercise with companies. I encourage leaders to take employees with differing identities for coffee, ask them about their lived experiences and challenges and then sit back and listen. Don’t talk – just listen. 

One notable leader recently racked up sixteen coffee dates before sharing at a town hall. So illuminating were the insights that, by his own admission, he couldn’t stop. We can’t stop. We have so much to improve about how we live and work. And don’t we want to be the best in the world?

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Championing Women’s Rights