Gender pay gaps are as much about low pay as high pay

As NHS Trusts publish their pay gaps it is clear that an equal pay system doesn't mean pay parity

NHS Trusts have started to publish their gender pay gaps. Of those published so far, they show a range of gaps between 7% and 33% depending on the type of Trust, with hospital Trusts standing at the higher end of the scale. These findings are heavily influenced by the number of doctors – as high earners – each Trust employs.

The NHS can boast of significant progress when it comes to gender equality in the workplace:

  • 41% of chief executives are women
  • 46% of very senior managers are female
  • 45% of the total medical workforce, including 35% of consultants, are women
  • 53% of doctors now in training are female
  • 52% of GPs are women.

But there are still outliers; while 75% of HRDs are women this falls to just 25% for finance directors and 25% for medical directors. Even so, these statistics for women in senior leadership positions far outstrip those seen in FTSE 100 companies.

The NHS has an equal pay system where pay for work of equal value is recognised. For example, a male nurse and female nurse entering the profession with the same qualifications and experience will be on the same pay scale. However, it is still possible that organisations can have equal pay systems and still have a significant gender pay gap.

The gender pay gap is calculated as the average pay of all the men in an organisation compared to the average pay of all the women. With approximately 80% of the NHS workforce being women and with there being a fairly equal gender split among highly-paid staff such as doctors, the average earnings of female employees is significantly lower than the average earnings of male employees. This disparity comes despite the fact that a man and woman doing the same job are on the same pay grade.

Women also make up the majority of all pay quartiles. In the highest pay quartile there are approximately two women for every one man, however in the lowest quartile there are five women for every one man. The large gender pay gap in the NHS is as much a feature of low pay as it is about inequality in high pay.

It is not appropriate for organisations to talk down these gender pay gaps. They exist in most workplaces and we must confront them. By publishing these gaps we are creating a debate around the reasons they exist, and are highlighting what organisations and governments must do to reduce them.

To close the gap organisations can be more responsive to flexible working, recognise the challenges of pursuing a career when working part time, and create a culture that promotes women in senior positions as role models. But narrowing and closing the gap will also require significant societal changes; with a need to focus on the responsibility we have as a society to emphasise the inherent structural labour market issues that exacerbate this inequality. For example, we need to question why we view caring roles as predominantly undertaken by women, and as less valuable than more male-dominated roles.

It is right that transparency on gender pay accelerates action in large employers, but, if we don’t use this time to address societal challenges, progress to achieving genuine gender pay parity will be slow.

Dean Royles is director of HR and organisational development at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and co-author of Introduction to Human Resources Management