The introduction of gender pay gap reporting in April 2017 has proved fortuitous for media, which eagerly awaits publication of company results in order to be the first to publicly rebuke said businesses. This week, it is the turn of HSBC, that shining beacon of international banks which is generally otherwise heralded as a success. HSBC’s bad publicity has arisen this week because, clearly not marred enough by the publication of an eye-wateringly large 60% gender pay gap report in 2017, it has had the hapless experience of having to reveal that pay disparity between men and women in 2018 has actually gotten worse and now stands at 61%. Cue chortles of laughter from smaller banks which can now say with some misguided smug confidence, “We are not as bad as them!”

Let’s be clear about one thing: gender pay gap reporting does not tell you if two people in the same job are earning the same. HSBC’s gender pay gap report does not mean, for example, that a woman at HSBC is earning 61% less than her male comparator doing the same or similar job. Rather, it tells us whether a company is male-dominated at the top, where the supposed “fat cats” live.

According to its website, 75% of the UK management team at HSBC are male. According to their gender pay gap reporting, 67% of the top quartile of earners are men. However, women make up 54% of all employees. 67% of women are in junior roles. The statistics are undeniably stark. HSBC has published a supporting narrative to its results, setting out the usual management rhetoric on the strategies being implemented in an effort to bring some balance at senior levels.

It is worth noting that the larger international banks seem to fare worse in the access to senior management opportunities stakes. HSBC has a gender pay gap report of 61%. Barclays last reported a 48% pay gap. In contrast, Lloyds Bank reported a 31.5% pay gap and Royal Bank of Scotland last reported a pay gap of 37.2%. None of these statistics are anything to celebrate, but there does seem to be a trend. Having worked in large corporates and having advised employees working in such organisations, I anticipate that for larger international banks, this may be partly due to pressures of international travel on the senior leadership team, meaning it can be more difficult for women to take up senior roles. While it is common to find male senior executives leading a nomadic expat lifestyle with their wives and children in tow, it is far less common to see a female senior executive with her stay-at-home husband and children up sticks to allow her career to progress.

The most useful thing about gender pay gap reporting is that it provides career progression signposts as to how far a person is likely to progress in an organisation. It is not determinative, of course; it’s just one factor to consider. For junior-level employees, it provides very little insight at all. For women looking to reach the highest ranks, the gender pay gap data might indicate there is a glass ceiling. On the flipside, there will be such pressure on organisations like HSBC to remedy the situation, that actually there may be more focus on career progression for women (though perhaps less so at the very top). For men looking at career opportunities, they may be thinking that they have better senior-level prospects at an organisation like HSBC or Barclays where there is “safety in numbers” and men are rocking at the top, provided they do not fall foul of attempts at positive discrimination where such organisations may try to promote more female representation at senior levels. In all cases, men and women would be prudent to ask about career opportunities if looking to join a new team.

For employers, the significant levels of media interest around gender pay gap reporting mean there is no hiding from the facts. Employers will usually have reasons to explain away the statistics, but no amount of explanation can detract from the harsh reality that a wide gender pay gap looks bad, to current staff and future candidates. Times are changing and employers need to wake up to the fact that, while employees and candidates do not have a say on who gets promoted to the top, they can vote with their feet.