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Mind the gap – achieving gender pay equity in Asia Pacific

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Resolving the gender pay gap has become a high priority item in many corporate workplaces around the world today. Understandably, this pressure may cause some employers to look for quick fixes. This is an inappropriate and insufficient response, but it reflects how – despite several studies into the gender pay gap – there remains huge disparities in understanding why the issue exists in the first place.

It has become common to assume that the gender pay gap is due to certain life events – marriage, parenthood and elder care – that historically, have been taken mostly by women rather than men.1 Our latest data on Workforce Analytics in Asia Pacific shows that on average, the pay gap expands to 4% at age 25. This widens to 16% to 86% between the ages of 40 and 60. However, when we compare this by job size, the gap averages only 1% to 4% across the region at any job level. Furthermore, although men still dominate technical sectors such as high tech and engineering, women hold most roles in corporate support functions such as HR, finance and marketing.2

These trends suggest that there are other factors at play in this complex issue.

Choices in the past versus choices in the future

In the past, social and cultural expectations on women could severely limit and influence their career decisions. The after-effects of these decisions has allowed conventional gender assignments to persist until today. It continues to be tough for many women to pursue STEM career paths, which are still dominated by males. And on the flip-side, this mind-set has discouraged many men from pursuing roles that are normally ‘more suited’ to women. Across Asia Pacific, men occupy 72% of IT-related jobs, while women hold between 68% to 79% of HR, legal and finance roles.2

But tides have turned in the digital era. Women have access to powerful global platforms that can contest misconceptions and expose discriminations in the workplace. This movement is helping to shine a brighter light on gender equality, and the importance of acknowledging the strengths and individuality of each person – regardless of gender. As a result, employees are reclaiming the freedom to choose.

However, only 55% of employees in the Asia Pacific region feel that their workplace supports fair treatment and diversity, compared with the 63% global average.3 Every employee wants to feel that they can be their true selves at work, and to not feel pressured into fulfilling a social or cultural construct of what they can do based on their gender or any other demographic identifier.

The math of the gender pay gap does not account for personal preferences. So as we move forward in the fourth industrial revolution, employers should focus less on ‘rebalancing’ demographics just for the sake of ‘making things right’. While social biases still play a part in opening gender pay gaps, we should also consider how personal, individual choices are shaping our pay matrix.

Narrowing the gap by expanding inclusive policies

The gender pay gap does reflect many women taking career breaks during a particular age range. But as we are all aware, certain life events do not exclusively affect women. Every individual – regardless of gender, role, tenure, pay level, industry – will arrive at life stages that asks them to put their personal lives ahead of work.

Employees want to take those breaks. But they are more likely to do so if there is no risk of falling behind in their career, or worst case scenario – losing their job, which can result in significant financial stress. One in five employees in Asia Pacific today struggle with financial issues, and 41% worry about their future financial state.4 It is unsurprising, but worrisome, to find that ‘working harder’ is our number one way of coping with stress. Only 24% of employees take time off.3

Dealing with the global talent scarcity, businesses can gain more by investing in the care and development of their existing talent pools. An emerging trend is to create gender-neutral policies that provide career support through any life event. For example, instead of re-examining maternity and paternity leave policies separately, many organisations are beginning to craft gender-neutral parenthood support programmes. An increasingly popular benefit is flexible working arrangements, which is helping employees to better achieve balance between their work and personal lives.

Organisations must also recognise that diversity applies to performance. It is unrealistic to expect the same performance and engagement from different persons even if they are doing similar roles. It’s equally unfair to expect all of them to have identical skills and talents, as their level of expertise and experience will not necessarily be the same. Pay design must consider these differences as well.

These differences are ultimately a result of the choices each person has made throughout their unique, individual journey. Thus, paying them all equally does not achieve true pay parity. Pay and rewards should account for this type of diversity.

Long-term solutions at the root of the issue

Businesses can help to resolve the gender pay gap through contributions to the education system, where most people begin to consider their future career. Employers can partner with schools and communities to rethink how the education system currently prepares individuals for the workplace. We need to re-examine how social biases influence school activities and those learning opportunities that a male or a female student would typically explore.

Behavioural changes in the home can bring an even more powerful change to society. Men and women are challenging traditional family roles and choosing to do any role they wish. In countries with progressive gender equality polices, such as Sweden and New Zealand, husbands and wives can have shared responsibilities in the family and the household. This can provide greater opportunities to strike a balance between their family role and career role, without having to choose one or the other.5 If modern Asian families follow a similar pattern, we may see female representation increase at senior employment levels. As it stands, across 13 major markets across the region, only 7% of today’s business unit head/country manager roles are occupied by women.2

Attracting more women into diverse roles in the world of work can deliver invaluable benefit to businesses as they gain new streams of talent, ideas and experiences. But more importantly, it will help topple centuries-old assumptions about the roles that only women or only men can do. Taking part in these social changes today, can build a much bigger stage for future generations to share together – no matter what gender.

This article was originally published on October .16, 2018, for Willis Tower Watson

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