Can start ups help bridge the gender pay gap?

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Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the gender pay gap in the UK was on average, 18%. When women become mothers, this figure widens over 12 years after the birth of their first child, only to end as a 33% gap in pay per hour. Plus, if you’re a male manager, you’re 40% more likely to get a promotion than your female manager colleagues.

Start ups propose a romantic antidote to the long-ingrained institutional bias that holds women back from progressing. Young companies are small, agile, and came to existence in a time when gender bias is losing power as a social force. As put to me by a founder, when you’re a start up owner, you can “make your own politics”. Read: you can make the choice to sidestep what everyone else is doing and set your own standards for conduct, pay, and culture. Which means you’ve got the power to make it fair.

I work in an office that is mainly female. Granted, we are a small but growing start up; small enough for the skew to not necessarily be so telling. Still, day in, day out, I’m in an environment where the ratio of women to men is 2:1. Women have been the majority for most of the time I have worked there. I believe this is the case because of our transparent and meritocratic culture, which is based on the basic idea that the power to shape a job role lies ultimately within the individual. This culture was set by our founder, who is male.

We’ve hired and progressed the best person for the job, which so far have just happened to be women. Of senior management staff, two of three are female. I am one of these females.

The Evening Standard reports that in half of London’s tech start ups, women hold less than a quarter of top roles (my field is digital marketing). Research by recruiter Hired however showed that women who work in smaller bootstrapped and seed stage companies have a gender wage gap that is half — yes, half — of that in bigger companies.

In a small start up the power to set fair pay for men and women should rest with an individual, or a small group of people, rather than a conglomerate board with long-serving members, that sits atop a complicated management hierarchy.

Marketing agency Brainlabs are one start up that recognised this power, and used it wisely. Finding an 8.6% pay gap between men and women in their firm, they consulted with staff and gave them three options of addressing the problem: do nothing, raise women’s pay to the same level, or cut male pay by 8.6%. Guess what happened? Brainlabs raise women’s salaries by, on average, 8.6%.

Sophie Newton, Brainlabs director has called the move a “Pay Gap Tax”:

“We’re calling it the ‘Pay Gap Tax’ – a way of penalising ourselves for failing to redress the imbalance in our company and industry. By committing to repeat this exercise next year, we have a serious incentive as a business to fix the problem – we need to look at all aspects of work, from recruitment to promotion and reward to environment, in order to tackle inequality.”

She’s right. The pay itself it is the iteration of the larger problem: the gender pay gap is about more than equal pay for equal work. Lack of women in senior positions boils down to deep-seated inequalities in the way women are perceived, and what is thought to be successful in the world of business.

Here I would trot out that familiar argument that women aren’t socialised to champion certain characteristics that embody what success looks like in business: hard negotiating skills, confidence, keen competitive spirit, fearlessness, and the ability to push themselves forward to “get a seat at the table”. The feminine gender roles many women are raised into excludes these traits, teaching instead the importance of likeability, and emotional intelligence. In recent years there has been some great counter-dialogue to this, but we’re not quite at the happy level of a clean divorce.

The belief in itself that these typically masculine traits equate to business success is a deeply ingrained patriarchal one. Holding women to these standards of success in order to get ahead validates the structure of the current system, and ignores importance of other skills essential to shining at work; particularly if in a management role. Leadership doesn’t need to be shouty to be effective, just as negotiation can involve elements of empathy and diplomacy. Managing a team well means you need to be respectful, rather than bullying your colleagues into ‘proving themselves’ and ruling by fear.

Recognising wide-ranging markers of success and deciding whether to reward them are choices that each company needs to make for themselves. Should you consider giving someone a pay rise just because they asked? Might the merit lie, equally or instead of, in respecting a choice to review salary at a designated time? Do we really, really need to be so cut-throat in order to succeed?

Thankfully, not everyone thinks so.

Start ups offer the grimy-yet-glittery idea of meritocracy via grit. If you are in a tiny firm, your work and effort to make it grow are very, very visible. You have more opportunity to show your superiors what you’re made of, and how your unique combination of skills and traits are working to push their business upwards. And, the amount of start ups in the UK is growing.

In 2015, start up formation increased by 4.6% from 2014, making the highest number of new formations on record. With more and more Brits, some as young as 16, cutting loose and forming their own businesses, it means that there’s more and more small locuses of power within British business who can make decisions that ensure their workplace is a fair one. Last year, 608,110 new businesses were formed. What would happen if each and every one of these young companies made a commitment to equal pay, and fair opportunity?

Of course, even if this happened, it wouldn’t be the silver bullet to close the pay gap once and for all. But it would demonstrate that there are employers in the UK willing to change the rules, challenge their perceptions, and work hard to give everyone a fair go. This would creative enough change to put pressure on other firms to match pace.

Large-scale social change is never perfect, and never happens overnight, but a shift in attitude and responsibility as employers will absolutely help it along. As well as encourage more talented women to work for your start up, maximise their potential, and drive your business forward. Plus, it might get you some great exposure as a company who does the right thing: Brainlabs were featured in The Guardian.

As a female in a senior management role within a start up, I’ve been a decision-maker in most of our hires in the last year. I believe we have hired the best person for the role in each case, regardless of gender. We are a creative team, and most of the job adverts we’ve run for people to join it have attracted more women than men. This is probably in part down to the long-held, socialised ideas that women are better suited to creative, writer-type, or PR roles. The result is that when we come to final interview stage, there are more women than men. Because this team keeps growing and developing, we need more and more people to fill it. Rinse, repeat. As it stands, we are five women and one man.

We need more people will certain skill sets, and the majority of the people applying are women, probably because the skills and traits we need are aligned with characteristics compatible with conventional notions of femininity. Despite this, the one man in our team is equally talented and capable; just as another man might be, or another woman might be.

Within this framework, everyone on the team has the same chances to grow and develop their responsibilities based on how much they can help our company grow. In our start up the onus to succeed is firmly on the individual: if you don’t have the ‘get up and go’ that you need to pull up business by the laces, you’ll find yourself standing still. It’s meritocratic romance at its finest, but offers a more progressive model for career development. Quite simply, start ups need to grow, and will reward people who help make that happen.

Start ups both rely on and champion individualism. They also abide by rules and culture set by the founder; something that might feel a bit of a gamble from the outside looking in, but something freed from the shackles of tradition oozing down from big dogs in top desks.


Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.