Many employers and advisers are waking up to the fact that the pay gap has little to do with differences in the pay of men and women doing the same job and a lot to do with the distribution of men and women at different levels of the organisation.

A commonly held, and widely reported, view is that a pay gap exists because of the lack of women in senior positions. That view is supported by recent research which indicates that women occupy only 4% of CEO and executive positions across all employment sectors in the UK. For some, including campaigners, the answer to the pay gap is to focus on developing and promoting women into those more senior positions.

That is a valid objective, but over simplifies the situation and for many employers will do little to help.  It may change the headline figure for employers with high pay multiples, where the executives earn 100 times the lowest paid employee, but it won’t dent the figure in companies with more modest differentials.  We need to look at gender balance the other end of the scale.

I work with many employers who have very good equality policies and very good ‘like work’ comparisons, but still have a marked pay gap. You can re-balance your executive team, but it has little impact on the statistical analysis if women occupy most of the lower paid roles. Many years ago women filled the lower paid roles in offices, you rarely saw a male receptionist or male junior assistant. That has changed for the better and it’s no longer remarkable to be greeted by a male receptionist, or to deal with a male accounts clerk working for a female finance manager. We are not quite there yet, but there is progress.

Care and support work has not changed in the same way. The vast majority of paid carers are female: that might be changing, but slowly. That work is low paid, not because the employer won’t pay more but because it can’t. We have a long history of treating it as low value work (traditional JE schemes didn’t help much) so market pay is lower than perhaps it should be. Care funding reflects that. The race to the bottom on pay has been joined by a race to the bottom on benefits such as sick pay and holidays, driven by competitive tendering and budget cuts.

All of the above means that any organisation involved with care and support, be it a charity, nursing home chain, social housing provider or a private company, will have a large number of females at the bottom end of their pay hierarchy. That gives a statistical pay gap regardless of what happens in the senior team. If narrowing the pay gap for every organisation is a legitimate objective, we need to address gender imbalance and pay at the bottom as well as at the top.

It seems very likely that some of the best employers will appear to be among the worst when we look at the bare statistics required by statutory gender pay reporting. An unintended consequence, especially if Cameron and his ilk play the “name and shame” game as he once suggested, may be outsourcing of low paid activities to window-dress the figures. That will do nothing to help low paid women.

Employers and commentators must change their focus – we have talked enough about opportunities for women in senior roles, we must start asking why there are so many women, and so few men, doing demanding, socially valuable low paid work.

Richard Cowling, Forest HR, June 2016