POSTED: March 17 2016
ADVO Group interviews Olivia Hill, Chief HR Officer, AAT

ADVO Group interviews Olivia Hill, Chief HR Officer, AAT

AAT is the UK’s leading qualification and membership body for vocational accountants, with over 130,000 members around the world. The company recently revealed search findings which found that the experiences of men and women working in finance vary drastically in terms of pay, progression and prejudice. In this interview we gain some further insight into the research from Olivia Hill, Chief HR Officer at AAT with more than fifteen years of experience in the HR field.

Your recent research found evidence of a significant gender gap, in terms of salary and career progression, within the finance industry. The research found that 60% of men think men and women are treated equally, a view shared by only shared by 43% of female respondents. Were these figures in line with your predictions, or were you surprised by the findings?

With the release of reports such as the Government’s Women in Finance report last year we were aware that there are still differences in pay and progression opportunities between genders in the finance sector. Our research findings bear that out and show that men and women have very different experiences of discrimination. A lot of the time men will be less aware of issues relating to gender inequality around them because they aren’t exposed to them, leading to an unconscious gender bias. For example in our research, when asked about the factors that hold people back in their workplace more men than women blamed a lack of talent and education background, while more women than men cited starting a family and people’s gender.

Your research also found evidence to suggest that the pay gap between men and women may widening rather than closing. Do you think this widening in inequality will continue to increase further?

I’m hopeful that the widening in inequality will not continue to increase. If organisations take necessary steps to help combat inequality, there is no reason why we can’t begin to close the gap. The gender pay gap is now widely discussed and many large businesses are announcing new measures to combat inequality, such as using name blind CVs when hiring. In addition, with companies over 250 employees soon to be required to share information on their gender pay gaps, transparency will increase further. This can only be a good thing in helping to encourage companies to ensure that their salary ranges are as fair and equal as possible, and to help close the pay gap.

The research found that the largest gaps in inequality were most commonly present in middle and senior management levels. Why do you think it is the more senior management levels that seem to demonstrate the worst levels of gender inequality?

This is because the senior management level of the finance sector has predominately always been male. Over time an unconscious gender bias has opened up even wider at this level with females in our research saying that an ‘old boys club’ is one of three main barriers to progression. Senior management levels are also often the point where other responsibilities begin to affect careers; in our research 16% of women said they have become stuck in a role they’ve outgrown due to family commitments. In addition men were twice as likely to say that they have stuck to a planned career path than women (14% of men compared to 7% of women).

What do you think are some of the most common and significant factors behind some of these forms of gender inequality within the workplace?

The women we spoke to for our research gave three main reasons why they feel gender inequality is an issue in their workplaces; that there is still a persistent ‘old boys club’ mentality, that finance is still male dominated at senior levels, and that childcare responsibilities still fall mostly to women. As well as these barriers which lead to gender inequality, our research also showed a salary assertiveness factor, for example that men are more assertive about asking for – and getting – pay rises. This means that there is a gender confidence gap where women are disadvantaged, which is exacerbated by an unconscious gender bias within many organisations.

How representative or applicable do you think your findings may be to the wider UK economy, aside from the financial industries?

It’s recognised that the UK still has a gender pay gap, with the latest figures showing a gap of 24% in average full-time annual salaries between women and men. Our findings show some reasons why this could be and offer some insight into underlying factors which could be at play in other industries. This includes our finding that men are bolder with their salary expectations, with twice as many men as women wanting to earn £10,000 or more on top of their current salary (28% vs 14%), and that men are more likely to push for a pay rise with 26% of men having asked for a pay rise in the last year compared to 18% of women.

Tell us more about your recently launched white paper to help employers tackle these issues.

Our white paper outlines the findings from our research in detail, discussing the reasons why it is important the gender pay gap is closed, and the benefits closing it will give businesses. It also has information on steps businesses in any sector can take to promote and encourage equality. The white paper is available to read on AAT’s website.

What are some of the easiest and most impactful initial steps that employers can take to address these issues?

Our white paper sets out some of the most impactful steps employers can take. Some of the easiest include having a clear discrimination policy in place which staff at all levels know about and understand, developing job descriptions in a gender neutral way based on competencies when hiring, and analysing pay and representation data so you can identify where any problems lie.

Do you think we are starting to see a greater level of transparency across business as a whole with regard to issues such as gender inequality, and if so, do you think this will play in key role in tackling the issue?

Transparency is an option that organisations are certainly starting to look at, however more needs to be done – particularly across the finance sector which is still sluggish when it comes to equality of pay and progression. What’s more the Government now recognises the issues facing the finance sector, as shown by its Women in Finance review, so a collaboration between the sector and Government could help to boost a drive for equality.