50 years of equal pay: 4 female leaders reveal their experiences

By Robert Half on 8th November 2020

Has anything really changed for women since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act? On 13th October 2020, Kristen McNamara (Senior Director of Staff Development & Talent Acquisition at Robert Half) hosted a roundtable discussion as part of Robert Half’s ongoing series exploring the challenges and opportunities faced by women in business.

Suzanne Baxter (Chair, Non-executive Director & CFO); Gillian Bonthron (Group Finance Director at Perspectum Ltd); Sarah Edge (Director of Sales at SOTI) and DeLynn Senna (Executive Director at Robert Half) joined us to discuss their careers, their experiences, and the future of workplace equality.

The road to workplace equality isn’t a straight line

Before the Equal Pay Act, practices were off balance in both the public and private sector. Many women were paid 50% less than their male counterparts, with pension schemes to match.

Even after the act was passed, things haven’t been plain sailing for women — the ongoing gender equality discourse is proof of this. On the flip side, it is also a long-lasting invitation to discuss issues faced by women at work.

Suzanne believes that equal pay should be updated to address the grey areas surrounding the definition of ‘equality’. “This law was drafted 50 years ago to address a problem that existed 50 years ago for women in the workplace. Life is very different now.”

Workplace behaviours also need to shift. Suzanne suggests that employer transparency over salary bandings should be part of the employment contract.

“The solution comes through thinking about relevance in today's workplace, using the law as a framework, but not waiting for legislation. Acting on the back of what's right and what feels right for women that work with us and for us.”

According to 70% of women, equality is inconsistent and varies industry to industry — a sentiment supported by the pay gap analysis. Suzanne points out that employers shouldn't take all the blame. Some industries, like construction and engineering, suffer stunted progress due to gender stereotypes.

As a biotech professional, Gillian believes the discussion is bigger than it was fifty years ago. “These days we look at sexual orientation, as well as racial diversity. I think that conversation is very healthy.”

Challenging inequality with constructive conversations

Employees aren’t as powerless as they believe — change is possible when you start the right conversations and ask the right questions.

Women are well within their right to ask employers to explain how their pay is determined and how it’s considered from an equal pay perspective. Find out who your comparators are and, if your pay isn’t in line with theirs, ask why. “I think you have to have an open, honest, and constructive dialogue. Going in all guns blazing probably won't give you what you need,” says Suzanne.

Finding the confidence to look beyond technical skills

Experience teaches many women to lean on their soft skills as a valuable asset. Effective people management involves a honed set of cultural and interpersonal skills. Gillian encourages graduates to have the confidence to leverage these to their advantage. This is particularly pertinent for graduates who are attempting to find their first role in the current economic climate.

“It's tougher on Zoom and on Teams; you have to portray more confidence,” says Gillian. “Turn your camera on at all times. Women often have a tendency to hide behind the screen and I would encourage otherwise.”

Graduates may also be comforted to learn that careers rarely follow a set path. Age and experience can illuminate new passions or goals you simply weren’t aware of. Sarah says, “sometimes things just evolve, and your career evolves, and opportunities come your way that perhaps you weren't always expecting.”

Never underestimate your impact

Women at all stages of professional life are able to facilitate opportunities for one another. Graduates should consider building their networks from the very start of their careers with a view to reaching out and asking for a foothold. Similarly, experienced professionals can leverage their own networks to lift other women up.

“I've certainly found that women love to help other women,” says DeLynn. “Build your network as wide as you can, because people open doors for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; it may not necessarily be someone that you know, either. Who can you tap into who may know someone that can get you in the door?”

Mentoring and sponsoring others is also a valuable way to help your peers advance, while simultaneously learning new things yourself.

Look beyond the role to find the opportunity

When Sarah returned to work after having a family, she learned that a job role isn't always indicative of the opportunity. If you're in a similar position, she advises looking at the company culture instead. The attitude of the team will be key in providing the confidence and support you need.

“It's led me to make lots of other decisions in my career, based on what I did back then when I returned to work,” Sarah says. “I would advise that to anybody who is feeling massively daunted that that is always one option, that you could go in and take a step down, and then work your way back up.”

Take control of your career

Those that don’t ask, don’t get. Rather than deferring your career progression to your employers, start asking for what you want. By achieving your targets and expanding your network internally, you put yourself in the position to initiate those conversations.


Webinar: Career reflections

Watch other roundtable discussions from this series on-demand via the Robert Half YouTube channel and blog.

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