Gender pay data shows foodservice top of the class

Ours is the most equal of any British sector – but the big players in particular still have work to do. By Nick Hughes.

The results are in and for foodservice there is reason to feel a degree of satisfaction over the gap between what men and women working in the sector are paid.

Analysis published by the Guardian after the deadline for companies to submit their gender pay gap data passed on April 4th found that accommodation and food services came the closest to equality of any British industry sector, with a pay gap of just 1% between men and women.

Set against the 25% gap in construction and 22% in finance and insurance, such a nominal divide reflects well on the sector, though it also reflects the large number of employees of both sexes working in service roles who receive the minimum wage.

But if there is any temptation towards complacency among foodservice businesses it would be unwarranted. Among the sector’s biggest players which employ large numbers of people in head office roles, there is still much work to do to reach pay parity.

Analysis by Footprint has shown that among the 10 largest contract catering companies (measured by turnover, based on the BHA Foodservice Management Market Report 2017), the difference in pay between the sexes is considerably more pronounced than the 1% sector average, ranging from 5.1% at OCS to 34.1% at Aramark. Similar male bias is revealed in the proportion of women in the top quartile of earners and those receiving bonuses versus men.

Once the media noise has died down, organisations that have revealed gender pay disparity will face difficult conversations with their workforce. And experts believe that without addressing the root causes of the pay gap, trust in businesses and their ability to deliver consistent profits will be hit.

Allyson Stewart-Allen, the CEO of International Marketing Partners, suggests that gender pay gap reporting will prove to be the #MeToo moment for brands and the companies behind them, referencing the movement to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment of women. “Those which reveal wide discrepancies in pay across the sexes can expect social media push-back, boycotting and other reputation-damaging activity while exposing company leaders to the scrutiny usually reserved for A-list celebrities,” says Stewart-Allen.

Even for those businesses that are not consumer-facing brands, Stewart-Allen warns that high levels of pay inequality come at a price in terms of lower staff retention, higher recruitment costs and lower morale as well as providing evidence of low diversity at senior levels in organisations, which, she argues, “should concern shareholders as the stats prove gender diversity delivers higher commercial returns”.

One of the main reasons cited by contract caterers for their pay gap is indeed a gender imbalance at an executive level. The likes of Sodexo, Elior, Compass and BaxterStorey all cite a preponderance of men in senior roles as a key reason for women’s median hourly pay being at least 10% lower than men’s.

To compound matters, ISS notes in its own gender pay report that women are more likely than men to be in frontline roles at the lower end of the organisation including the “five Cs” occupations: catering, clerical, cleaning, caring and cashiering. It suggests that other explanations for the disparity are that women are more likely than men to have had breaks from work that have affected their career progression and are more likely to work in part-time roles which tend to be relatively low-paying.

Yet there are exceptions that prove that an absence of women in the higher echelons of foodservice organisations is far from an inevitable consequence of a society that stacks the career chips in favour of men. Although Aramark’s median pay gap is the biggest of the 10 sector leaders, the company reveals that in its Campbell Catering business there are more women (63.4%) than men in senior positions, resulting in equality in median pay.

The Fawcett Society, a charity that campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, is challenging businesses that identify a majority of female employees in lower-paid roles to ask themselves why those women’s work is not better paid and why they are not being promoted. Gender pay gap reporting “forces employers to look at themselves and understand their organisations”, says the charity’s chief executive, Sam Smethers, who adds that, rather than trying to hide or massage their figures, employers should seize the opportunity to look into the root causes of any pay gap and develop an action plan to address it.

The evidence from gender pay gap reports published by the foodservice sector suggests businesses are heeding the advice. ISS, for instance, has implemented a remunerating committee and is introducing training in unconscious bias.

Many contract caterers have developed mentoring and sponsorship programmes to help women in their career development. Sodexo’s gender balance employee network highlights women in senior leadership positions and people in non-traditional roles. Aramark has established a Women’s Business Resource Network (WBRN) to accelerate the advancement of women employed by the company to share information, best practices, education and experiences. And Elior’s Celebrate Equality programme promotes awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion within its workplace and recruitment practices.

This is just a small sample of the many programmes that businesses throughout the sector are offering female employees.

Some caterers are also making a concerted effort to encourage more female representation in roles traditionally defined as being male-oriented. Compass is attempting to tackle the shortage of female chefs by setting itself the target of a 50:50 split of male and female chefs by 2020. “Conversations about women in the workplace tend to focus on getting women out of the kitchen, rather than into it,” says Chris Garside, the managing director of Compass Group UK & Ireland. “However, as a foodservice business, we know better than most the opportunities a career in food can open up. We also notice more than most the relative lack of women in our industry.”

Some women, such as Elior UK’s chief executive, Catherine Roe, have managed to make it to the top of the industry despite the myriad challenges they face. But the data suggests many more, through no fault of their own, will be denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential by impediments that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job.

Mandatory gender pay reporting has its critics. The free-market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs has railed against the way in which the government has required pay gaps to be measured, including its failure to analyse gaps between comparable roles and a lack of distinction between full-time and part-time workers. This, it argues, has led to “largely useless statistics, misleading headlines and unfair demonisation of companies”.

Yet the signs are that the requirement to publish data has already led to a period of introspection among companies and a determination to correct institutional bias – conscious or otherwise – that has previously disadvantaged women. Until recently, Mitie’s entire board of senior directors was made up of men. After what the company describes as “a conscious effort towards encouraging a more diverse work force”, Mitie has appointed four women to its 11-strong board and has boosted the proportion of women on its executive leadership team from 0% to 24%.

It still leaves significant room for improvement but Mitie’s example suggests that mandatory gender pay reporting may be the lightbulb moment for employers that helps female employees get a fair deal on pay.

For a British public that finds talk of earnings a source of embarrassment, the publication of data has forced the country to have a conversation about what goes in our pay packet. Future reporting will tell us whether foodservice companies have concluded that it’s time to bridge the gender divide.

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