There have been other surveys showing how, on average, Britain pays men more than women, but none has shone a spotlight quite as fiercely on individual companies, charities and public organisations — or sparked as much debate.
The UK government’s year-long, mandatory gender pay gap reporting exercise has been an uncomfortable experience for many employers, who have been forced to reveal their internal statistics rather remain anonymous in sweeping national or sectoral studies.
Many left reporting their pay gap data up until the last minute — or slightly beyond, in the case of Unite, the country’s largest trade union, which filed its report on Thursday, several hours after Wednesday’s midnight deadline.
The task for British public and private employers alike will now be to show how they will respond to the huge pressure to improve their figures — especially since they will be required to publish their gender pay gap each year.
“This has put the issue on the table so companies could not fail to address it,” said Alison Jefferis, head of corporate affairs at Columbia Threadneedle Investments and a board member of the Women in Finance initiative.
Tulip Siddiq, a Labour MP and member of the Commons women and equalities committee, said she hoped the pay gap reports would mark a “watershed moment in the battle against pay inequality in Britain”.
She added that while the figures would “always be open to some degree of interpretation …the scale of the problem is self-evident”.
Petra Wilton, director of strategy for the Chartered Management Institute, said organisations needed to acknowledge they had a problem and pledge to do something about it.
“This can be reputation-enhancing or it can have a shaming effect, which is in fact a really good incentive to act,” she said.
Some groups have a greater gap to close than others. The filings revealed striking differences between certain sectors, with construction, financial services energy and professional services among those with far higher median gender pay gaps than the national figure of 9.7 per cent.
Arts and entertainment, hospitality and healthcare all fared better — though men were still paid more than women overall.
Ms Wilton said data showing the proportion of men and women in each pay quartile were particularly revealing, illustrating the lack of women in top roles — something she called the “glass pyramid”.
“Averages are blunt instruments but [the gender pay gap exercise] is a realistic representation of where organisations are across society, both the worst-offending sectors and those that are doing well,” she said.
But the figures also point to broader social issues, including the subjects boys and girls are expected to take at school and careers advice they receive, the jobs men and women traditionally choose, and the availability of good-quality, affordable childcare.
“This is not something employers can solve on their own,” said Charles Cotton of the CIPD, the professional body for human resources. “Government and society also have a role in challenging assumptions about what is man’s work and what is woman’s work.”
Neil Carberry, managing director of people and infrastructure at the CBI, the employers group, agreed.
“We need to make sure there is not an outsourcing of responsibility on to employers only,” he said. “This is about much more complex societal and workplace issues.”
Nevertheless, the exercise has presented companies with opportunities as well as embarrassment.
“This should make forward-looking companies think about what they are doing with their best talent,” said Philip Hampton, non-executive chairman of GSK and co-chair of the Hampton-Alexander review into improving gender balance in the leadership of FTSE groups.
“The more data you get, the more you can understand [the issue] and the more you can take steps to deal with it.”