Reaching into Canary Wharf’s frosty January sky at 8 Canada Square, HSBC’s striking headquarters are a symbol of financial prowess and persistence. But slowly the mighty construction may well be morphing into a token of the merciless patriarchy too.

This week, a year after being forced to out itself as the UK bank with the largest average gender pay gap, the organisation’s top executives have reason to hang their heads in shame and think a little more carefully about what their most noble new year’s resolution should be. 

During 2018, women at HSBC earned 61 per cent less on average than their male counterparts – a wider gap than the 59 per cent difference the banking powerhouse reported a year ago, which was itself already the biggest in the industry and by an embarrassingly sizeable margin.

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For context, Lloyds Banking Group admitted to a 31.5 per cent gender pay gap for last year, while the figure at Nationwide Building Society was 28 per cent: A far more favourable picture than HSBC, yes, but still close to double the UK average, which is around 17 per cent according to the Office for National Statistics.

So where did it all go wrong? Is gender pay gap reporting backfiring spectacularly, or is this a case of things getting worse before they get better? One of my theories is more depressing than the next.

Perhaps the initial pay gap reporting deadline was fretted about with such apprehension and angst that social responsibility and governance teams up and down the country, and especially at the closely audited FTSE 100 bigwigs, were overcome with relief when round one was finally over. As the fracas around the initial set of figures subsided, and as the damning headlines were once again usurped by Brexit, many were happy to procrastinate and turn their attention to less emotionally charged subjects, perhaps in the misplaced hope that someone else would clean up the mess next time around. Or maybe they just thought that the nationwide furore around the gender pay gap would conveniently blow over. We all have contracting attention spans anyway, don’t we?

A much bleaker and less palatable theory is that the policy itself, designed with such progressive intentions, is actually having a nasty raft of side effects.

Late last year, two reporters at Bloomberg conducted a slew of surveys across several branches of the finance industry from which they concluded that the #MeToo movement might be fuelling a new strain of institutional sexism that is being fed by fear. Intense scrutiny and women’s newfound courage to speak out is causing men at all seniority levels to feel threatened. They consider themselves to be tiptoeing through an ethical minefield. One wealth adviser quoted in the Bloomberg article provides a neat summary: just hiring a woman these days, he explains, is “an unknown risk”. What if she takes something he says the wrong way, escalates it and leaves his reputation and career in tatters? 

Some have dubbed it the “Pence effect”, after Donald Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, who reportedly said that he doesn’t dine alone with any woman except his wife. But whatever you want to call it, it’s consequences are depressing. While fighting a case for equality we’re achieving the opposite: alienation, segregation and destructive competition. We’ve made the #MeToo movement a female rallying cry for equality while men are left awkwardly loitering on the side lines, staring at their toes, afraid that if they join in they might be ostracised by their male allies who helped them get to where they are. Of course at the same time, they don’t want commit an ethical faux pas. The neatest option is to keep your head down, avoid eye contact and get on with what you’ve always done. Just don’t think about the women.  

So what’s this all got to do with HSBC’s chasmal pay gap?

Well, perhaps we’ve achieved that same element of segregation by screaming about pay disparity from the rooftops. The army fighting to close the gap has assumed a distinctly female identity.

The vast majority of human resource heads and governance executives tasked with taking on the challenge of enforcing gender equal compensation are female. Men, meanwhile, are struggling to find their place and role within this brave new world. And it’s a scary world. They know that they should help further the cause too, but a stubborn feeling of defensiveness lingers and it’s holding them back. Perhaps male managers can’t help but think that we’re heading for an era of positive discrimination in which women will have it “easier”. In fact, I know for a fact that many think this. In hushed tones and admittedly often a little tipsy, they’ve told me so themselves. That’s not right, they’ll conclude. They’re (hopefully) too savvy to say it out loud, but they’ll feel like they’ve become the victims as the age-old meritocracy withers.

The crux of it is that gender issues – whether that’s workplace discrimination, the pay gap between men and women or something far more sinister – are still, at their core, women’s issues. Until that changes, nothing material will. 

Perhaps one way to approach the challenge is to remind everyone that it’s in their own interest to create a more equal work environment. Reputational risks can cripple businesses and the shockwaves from that are certainly not just a woman’s problem. HSBC and its colossal HQ is the most visible scapegoat this week, but there are countless others.

It may take decades for the gender pay gap to inch in the right direction but it won’t budge if we keep framing this as something that pertains to just half the workforce. We need to showcase the benefits of equality in a way that will speak to the male and pale. Fast cars, expensive wine – whatever it takes. Women’s marches should become men’s marches too. And perhaps #MeToo even needs to make way for a new hashtag: #MenToo, or something like it.

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