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Gender pay disparity means councils are missing out on female talent

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In local government, as in other sectors, it is hard not to feel outrage that women are often paid less than men. Quite simply there should be greater equality of opportunity and equality of reward between the sexes, difficult to interpret as such concepts can be.

The analysis of gender pay audit data across the sector revealed by LGC this week should intensify the debate about what constitutes sexual equality of the local government workforce and how it can best be facilitated.

However, the reasons for the current pay disparity are complex. It is essential we avoid kneejerk reactions, especially when there may be differences in how councils have collected data, and especially when hasty action to remedy it could have the opposite effect to that intended.

If some councils have not included outsourced staff in their audit, while others have, pay gap comparisons could be unfair. And it could be that an authority can largely close its headline pay gap figure by outsourcing lower-paid roles that are largely held by female workers.

Outsourcing of course often results in lower pay for staff affected (for future employees not covered by TUPE agreements, at the very least). There is some irony that taking an action that results in pay cuts for women could improve an authority’s headline gender pay gap.

Austerity has had a devastating impact on local government’s workforce with pay levels suppressed for years. While there have been years in which the lowest-paid – disproportionately female – roles have received a greater proportionate increase than higher paid jobs, there is no doubt that the lowest paid council staff feel far poorer than before 2010.

The grotesque underfunding of social care, with its overwhelmingly female workforce, has hit providers who in turn have cut the pay of their workers. Directors of social care have reported widespread workforce shortages for some time – these most vital of roles undertaken by the care workforce are struggling to compete with the pay levels offered by supermarkets, to use one regularly cited example.

Progress appears to have been made in improving the gender balance in the upper echelons of the council workforce in recent years. However, to get more women in leadership roles councils need to do more to prove themselves to be family friendly employers.

There will rightly be suspicion that male-dominated council chambers will provide the required impetus to do this. Sector leadership organisations such as the Local Government Association should also ask whether they are doing enough. And it must be said that the opinion section of this week’s print version of LGC is overwhelmingly male (not for the first time) – raising questions for us and the profile we are giving leading women in the sector.

One thing is certain: a council where the make-up of the most senior roles, whether officer or political, does not look like that of its community is not fully representing it.

Reducing the gender pay gap is a prerequisite to solving this problem. Councils are losing out on talent unless they pay fairly.

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