This year marks 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to work in some parts of the civil service for the first time, specifying that “a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”.
Only seven years before this, in 1912, a royal commission had declared that women’s civil service salaries “should be fixed on a lower scale than those of men”, and that “the responsibilities of married life are normally incompatible with the devotion of a woman’s whole-time and unimpaired energy to the public services”.
Women from that time would surely be amazed to see the latest gender pay gap figures for councils, which show 55.3% of the highest paid quartile of roles in councils in England are held by women. This compares with 39.7% in all organisations.
However, this has to be taken in context; 78% of the local government work-force across the UK is female, according to 2017 Fawcett Society research, and women comprise the majority in each pay quartile, not just the top.
LGC analysis of the latest gender pay gap data, published in April, shows that in 2018-19 women were on average paid less than men in 262 authorities, while in just 58 the reverse was true. On the face of it this suggests there is still a long way to go. However, there are questions about how useful council wide gender pay gap data actually is.
Overall gender pay gap statistics can be affected by the distribution of staff at different grades, rather than necessarily resulting from inequality in pay or opportunity, a factor which has particular impact in councils that have workforces comprising a number of different professions.
Organisations employing more than 250 people have been required to publish their gender pay gap data since 2017. Analysis of the first two years of data shows that the gender pay gap in local government has at least moved in the right direction over the past 12 months with women paid 6.1% less than men on average, compared with 6.8% in 2017-18.
The most effective way to think about using gender pay gap data is to ensure that we’re using the data to ask holistic, workforce-wide questions
Karen Grave, PPMA
This is less than half the average gap seen at all reporting organisations nationally and compares particularly well with the NHS, which has a relatively high mean gender pay gap of 23%.
On average, looking at the median levels, women in councils were paid 4% less than men in 2018-19, compared with 5% in 2017-18
Organisations were asked to submit both median and mean gender pay gap data, but both have their limitations. Mean averages can be distorted by very large or small pay rates or bonuses, and while median averages avoid this distortion they really only give an indication of what the situation is in the middle of an organisation’s payscale.
For example, North Kesteven DC, which does not pay its staff bonuses, has a mean gender pay gap 10.5% in favour of men but a median gap of -0.4%.
Meanwhile, Dartford BC has the second biggest mean gender pay gap of coun-cils in England, at 24%, which could be construed as a cause of concern.
But both of the council’s directors and four of the council’s six most senior staff are women. The council says its lower proportion of men in jobs at lower grades is what lies at the root of its wide gender pay gap. “This may be explained by the contracting out of several services such as refuse collection, grounds maintenance, housing repair where the proportion of male staff is higher,” a spokesperson said.
They added it also appeared that women were being attracted to roles at lower grades within the council in greater numbers than men because of the “flexible working and family friendly policies we adopt at all levels”.
Conversely, at the other end of the scale Three Rivers DC has a 50% median gender pay gap in favour of women which a spokesperson said was due to the fact that the council’s lowest paid staff – grounds maintenance and refuse teams – are currently all male.
If a council can be judged for having a high gender pay gap e ectively because of which services ithas or has not outsourced, how useful is the gender pay gap as a benchmark measure? After all, councils use job grading systems to ensure that if two people of different genders are doing the same job, they will be paid the same.
Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers Association, said the data helps organisations think clearly about the extent to which there is an imbalance of gender pay balance at all levels.
“This is helpful as data allows us to ensure we are asking the right questions about gender and also ensure that we are making informed decisions about actions that might be available to us to address any imbalance,” she said.
And many councils are taking action to ensure greater gender balance and diversity at all levels of their organisations.
Doncaster MBC has introduced a 20-minute online unconscious bias training package, which delves into what unconscious bias looks like and how to address it.
Chief executive Jo Miller, who when president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers had a major focus on diversity and inclusion, said it was “pleasing” to see the council’s gender pay gap had reduced, from a mean of 15.7% to 14.8% and from a median of 21.1% to 16.5%. She said this was due in the main to a decrease in the numbers of staff on the lowest grades and increases in the pay rates following implementation of nationally agreed pay awards and a continued commitment to reduce low pay. However, she said the continued imbalance reflected the workforce profile which is 70% female.
A spokesperson for North Yorkshire CC, which has a mean gender pay gap of 12.1% in favour of men, claimed gender pay gaps often arise in the “lost employment” when women take maternity leave, and when, as in North Yorkshire’s case, many of the council’s lower graded roles such as cleaning, catering and care roles are traditionally part-time and filled by women.
However, it also claims to be challenging gender stereotypes by encouraging more female applicants into traditionally male dominated sectors such as highways and engineering and attracting more men into care posts through its Make Care Matters recruitment campaign.
This kind of action was highlighted by Ms Grave as a positive impact of examining gender pay gap data.
“Gender pay gap data helps us identify the extent to which we are encouraging better representation and equality of opportunity for men and women in the workplace,” she said. “However, it’s not the only measure we need to look at. We have to make sure, of course, that our women leaders are fantastic and the best they can be. And of course we have to be asking those questions of men too.”
Ms Grave said councils also need to start looking at BAME pay gap reporting. Organisations such as Leicester City Council, Westminster City Council and the Greater London Authority are already doing so.
“For me, the most effective way to think about using gender pay gap data is to ensure that we’re using the data to ask holistic, workforce-wide questions,” said Ms Grave.
“I’m a pretty passionate advocate of strategic workforce planning … keeping the way we design jobs under review so we can attract the broadest range of people.”
Ministry gender pay gap lower than councils
The Local Government Association’s analysis of the gender pay gap data suggested the sector’s 4% median gender pay gap compared favourably with most of Whitehall where the gap ranged from 3.1% at the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government to 15.6% at the Department for Transport.
The LGA analysis also showed variation between types of council and between regions.
Counties had the highest median pay gap, of 11.3%, followed by metropolitan authorities at 8.6%, unitaries at 6.5%, shire districts 1.3% and London boroughs 0.5%.
By region, the north-east has the highest gender pay gap at 7.2%, followed by the West Midlands at 6.6%. The eastern region had a pay gap of just 2.5%.
A total of 322 local authority gender pay gap submissions were made this year, including 11 councils with fewer than 250 employees that submitted data voluntarily.
However, the LGA said its own Earnings Survey, last conducted in 2015-16, showed an effective pay gap of zero. The survey compares actual jobs at a large sample of councils rather than examining the data at individual council level.