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Gender pay gap at UK unicorns: Monzo improves but major imbalance at Revolut

More than two thirds of gender pay gaps at UK unicorns are worse than the national average, and just a quarter of the top paid roles are held by women

By Kai Nicol-Schwarz

Revolut founders

In 2017 women who worked at Monzo were paid 52p for every £1 earned by men at the company. Fast forward four years and the gender pay gap at the neobank has shrunk to 4.3p, but the situation is far from rosy — just a third of its highest paying roles are held by women. 

The state of play at the majority of UK unicorns is worse, according to the government’s latest gender pay gap filings. 

Of the 20 UK unicorns that were required by law to submit gender pay gap data, only seven reported a gap that was smaller than the national average of 10% — meaning women are paid 90p for every £1 men earn. 

Just one, Octopus Energy, had a gender pay gap in women’s favour. The clean energy provider was also the only unicorn that had at least 50% women in its highest pay bracket.

What is gender pay gap reporting?

UK companies with more than 250 employees in the country have been required since 2018 to submit gender pay gap data to the government, giving a snapshot from the previous year. A pay gap doesn’t mean a company pays women less than men for the same job, which is illegal, but points to a lack of women in highly paid jobs. 

In this article we’ve looked at two key metrics: the median difference in hourly pay between men and women — which is commonly referred to as the gender pay gap — and the percentage of women in the highest paid positions at companies.

While the situation at most of the UK’s tech companies has improved since reporting began, the findings highlight the amount of work still to be done in the startup and scaleup community to create an environment that’s just on par with the rest of the country, let alone equal.

The gender pay gap at the UK’s unicorns is far from the only sign that the European startup scene has a ways to go to reach gender equality — and multiple women founders spoke of coming up against sexist attitudes while fundraising in a recent Sifted community survey. 

The situation among those investing in tech companies also looks pretty dire. In February, a Sifted analysis  found that more than a third of European VC firms are yet to hire a female partner, and there have been calls in the startup world to end the “boys’ club” culture among investors. 

European tech’s gender pay gap: What’s being done about it?

Since Sifted reported on last year’s gender pay gap filings, there’s been scarcely any change among the tech unicorns with the largest pay gaps. 

Fintech GoCardless is the exception. It posted the biggest pay gap among UK unicorns in 2020 — at 36.1% — before reducing it to 19.9% in 2021. It’s an improvement but, in comparison to the national average of 10%, still a significant outlier.

The lack of change at the five unicorns that filed the largest pay gaps this year is more concerning. 

At the foot of the table sits metaverse scaleup Improbable, after its pay gap increased by more than 5% between 2020 and 2021. That’s due to the lower proportion of women in the talent pool for high-paying technical roles, says an Improbable spokesperson.

According to government-backed startup growth network Tech Nation, 19% of the UK’s tech workforce are women. 

“The comparison to a national average [means] that the company is being compared to others not relying so heavily on technical roles,” the spokesperson continues.

But it’s a laboured excuse, says Elka Goldstein, the interim CEO at women in tech community EQL:HER. 

“There are recruiting agencies and programs to help with this ‘problem’, like our sister organisation 01 Founders,” Goldstein tells Sifted. “Organisations need to look harder externally, as there are plenty of women who are ready to join the technical workforce.” 

Revolut, one of Europe’s most valuable private tech companies, reported a similarly poor gender pay gap for 2021. It’s the second year the neobank has been required to submit data, following internal uproar among staff over the company’s handling of it last time round. 

In the company’s early days, growth trumped levelling the playing field between its male and female employees.

“In our first few years as we were growing, we hired a large number of engineers and product developers from an industry talent pool which tends to be male-dominated,” a Revolut spokesperson tells Sifted. “This drove an imbalance which led to a large part of our gender pay gap.” 

“The founding teams that will go on to be the next unicorns need gender parity from the outset”

As the company has scaled, however, it has apparently found more time and resources to focus on addressing its gender pay gap. 

“As we have shifted towards a fully fledged scaleup, we’ve been working to change [our gender pay gap], and increasingly hiring and promoting female talent across Revolut,” the spokesperson adds.

Nonetheless, Revolut’s gender pay gap is still one of the worst among UK unicorns, and only addressing the problem at a later stage comes with major downsides, says Goldstein.

“We talk about role models, but it’s so important to have women in leadership roles from the kick-off to ensure there is no glass ceiling in organisations,” she tells Sifted. 

“The founding teams that will go on to be the next unicorns need gender parity from the outset.”

Where are all the women in top paid roles?

Even at companies with comparatively small gender pay gaps, the highest-paid positions are overwhelmingly held by men. 

At Monzo, which saw its pay gap shrink from 14.3% to 4.3%, just a third of top jobs are held by women. It’s a state of play that depressingly chimes with Europe’s challenger banks as a whole, where women hold just 28% of top management positions.

But the situation is far worse at other UK unicorns.

Despite improvements at electric vehicle manufacturer Arrival — which cut its pay gap from 21% to 8.3% between 2020 and 2021 — just 14% of its best-paid positions are held by women.

At Revolut — which had one of the worst percentages of women in top positions in comparison to other European neobanks — just one in ten of the highest-paid roles are held by women.

Improbable tells Sifted that the reason its top jobs are so skewed towards men is because its C-suite — which is dominated by men — hasn’t changed in personnel over the past few years.

“Two elements need to be taken into account [when addressing the company’s gender pay gap],” an Improbable spokesperson says.

“On the one hand, we are a rather ‘big’ unicorn, and on the other, we are a ‘high-tech’ unicorn. Those two ‘ingredients’ come to challenge us more than others and come to accentuate trends that are seen across unicorns and tech more generally.”

Size doesn’t seem to have hindered Octopus Energy’s drive towards gender pay equality, though. The energy provider has more than 3,000 employees — triple Improbable’s headcount.

Octopus was the only UK unicorn that had a pay gap in women’s favour and more than half its top paid roles filled by women.

It’s taken a concerted campaign across a number of fronts to get to that stage, Octopus’ CEO and founder, Greg Jackson, tells Sifted.

“Through targeted headhunting, dedicated content campaigns and the right speaking engagements, we managed to raise our profile with tech-focused organisations, enabling us to hire more female engineers and developers.”

Is the gender pay gap at UK startups improving?

To some extent, yes — but things were starting from a low bar.

When reporting began in 2018, Starling — like Monzo — paid women little over half what they paid men. It’s since closed the gap, and now pays women 90p for every £1 earned by men, the same as the national average. 

Likewise, when WorldRemit first reported in 2019 it had a pay gap of 45.6%. While it’s almost halved that, the fintech still has one of the biggest gender pay gaps among UK unicorns. 

It’s over the next five years, however, that major change could begin, says EQL:HER’s Goldstein.

“Until businesses audit pay gaps in the same way they audit profit margins […] growth will be prioritised ahead of diversity”

“Everyone is taking a look at the records and auditing where they are,” she tells Sifted. “Goal setting and ​actively internally auditing is the only way larger companies will be the change makers we know they can be.”

But before that happens, there needs to be a cultural shift in the way companies treat diversity and inclusion targets, says Russ Shaw, founder of tech lobby group London Tech Advocates.

“If founders miss sales targets, they have investors and key stakeholders to answer to, whereas too many companies currently have little or no consequences for missing D&I quotas,” he tells Sifted. 

“Until businesses audit pay gaps in the same way they audit profit margins — collecting data to find out whether D&I strategies are working and introducing incentives to address diversity gaps — too often, growth will be prioritised ahead of diversity targets.”

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He covers healthtech and community journalism, and tweets from @NicolSchwarzK

To see the data in full, you can head to the UK government’s gender pay gap service website.

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