As compulsory disclosure on gender pay data looms closer for businesses across the UK, employers should take a look at the wider issue of gender equality in the workplace.

If you had an extra two hours in your day, how would you spend that time? Anything you want … surfing the waves, surfing the net, catching up on sleep, bonus time with the kids, the spouse or even just bonus ‘you time’. Well, sadly for the average female employee, those precious two hours will be spent at work. According to research by the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR, women are working ‘for free’ for almost two hours a day, compared to their male counterparts. Ladies, that’s the broad equivalent of working every Friday without pay (if you work full time), but you can bet that won’t have formed part of the employment contract negotiation!

45 years since equal pay legislation first came into existence, UK business is still operating with a gender pay gap. Arguably, therefore, we should all be welcoming the new government’s gender pay disclosure legislation with open arms. From early next year, employers with more than 250 staff will be required to audit and openly publish gender pay data. David Cameron says that this latest step forward will ‘cast sunlight on the discrepancies and create the pressure we need for change, driving women’s wages up.’ But, as with everything, the devil is in the detail, and the methodology behind the reporting will spin the story. A blanket average male : female comparison will likely suggest significant gender pay disparity in most organisations, because far more women than men work part time, and far more men than women make it to the dizzy heights of well paid senior management and boardroom positions. So, unless like for like job roles, hours of work and geographical locations are factored in, we are not in truth assessing ‘equal pay for work of equal value’, which is, after all, the very essence behind equal pay legislation.

There is no question that gender inequality is still rife in the workplace, and, indeed, that the gender pay gap needs to be tackled. However, in so doing, there is a huge opportunity to delve deep enough to analyse the wider gender inequalities that pervade through the business world, affecting other issues such as career progression. According to Sarah Churchman, PwC’s head of diversity, “Businesses can only tackle gender pay differences if they understand what is happening in their business in the first place, and therefore where they need to focus their efforts. Calculating pay averages for the whole workforce won’t necessarily reveal where the issues are … gender pay analysis is only one of a number of measures that organisations should be monitoring as part of their efforts to make sure their workplace has equal opportunities for all. “

In any kind of analysis, survey or review, it’s the follow up action that counts more than the findings. And the question is not only whether businesses will be ready (culturally and financially) to redress the gender pay balance. It is also worth asking whether they will be equipped with enough information to know where to even start in tackling the right gender equality issues. If so, we’re all good, but if not, then, with the best of intentions, the government is just throwing a grenade and running for cover.

A few organisations are ahead of the game, with fascinating findings. Accountancy firms, Deloitte and PwC have both pre-empted the legislation by publishing gender pay data, and the results tell an interesting story. In both cases, women were paid significantly less than men on average (15-18%), but this gap narrowed considerably (1.5 – 2.5%) once pay grade and location were factored in to the analysis. Proof, if it were needed, that, whilst a gender pay gap exists, the bigger problem is in ensuring females are given equal opportunity to climb the career ladder.

Gender pay disclosure is a definite vote winner, and, for sure, a welcome step in the right direction. But it won’t stand alone as a solution to addressing the full scale of gender imbalance in the workplace, and employers would be advised to use the forthcoming months to take as holistic an approach to gender auditing as possible, before enforced pay disclosure comes into effect next year.

One thing’s for sure, in a culture in which discussing one’s salary is a largely ‘taboo’ area, conversations at the water cooler may be about to take an interesting turn!