Jolanda Sappelli (a.s.r.): 'Closing the Gender Pay Gap Contributes to Talent Development'

Jolanda Sappelli (a.s.r.): 'Closing the Gender Pay Gap Contributes to Talent Development'
In three years, companies with a significant gender pay gap may risk fines and claims. This poses a challenge as the pay gap in the Netherlands is widening. However, insurer a.s.r. managed to close the pay gap successfully. CHRO Jolanda Sappelli explains how they achieved this result. ‘Step out of your comfort zone, critically examine your own biases, and see what happens when you set them aside.’

‘Do you hear that sound?’ Jolanda Sappelli, Chief Human Resource Officer at a.s.r., asks. She is being interviewed by Anne-Barbara Lemmens, DEI lead at Deloitte Human Capital Consulting (DEI stands for diversity, equity & inclusion). For practical reasons, this interview takes place via Microsoft Teams.
Despite the physical distance, the conversation flows smoothly, with questions and answers reflecting genuine interest and deep expertise. Until Jolanda mentions a background noise. But no, it does not reflect through the connection. Moreover, an engrossing conversation is not easily disturbed, especially when the topic is crucial. And it is, because the growing gender pay gap between male and female employees will affect every company in the coming years. Last spring, the European Commission issued a directive requiring employers to reduce wage differences between male and female employees. If companies fail to comply, fines may follow. If employees suffer financial harm due to a gender pay gap, they can demand full financial compensation from their employer. Employees will not need to prove they have suffered damage due to a gender pay gap. It will be employers who will carry the burden of proof that sufficient efforts to close the gender pay gap were made.

What efforts will be expected from employers? First, there is a requirement of pay transparency. Employers will need to provide their staff with insight into salaries and how these are determined. Before hiring, new employees must receive information about the salary and pay scale for the position. Salaries should be based on objective and gender-neutral criteria.
Furthermore, employers are obligated to inform employees about the average pay levels of equivalent colleagues, broken down by gender. Finally, employees also have the right to information about the criteria for determining pay and career development. The European member states have three years to implement these provisions into national legislation.
For many companies, it might be a considerable effort to comply with these rules. The gender pay gap in the Netherlands has over the past two years grown from 5 percent in 2021 to 7.4 percent today. This was an outcome of the biennial National Salary Study, an initiative by Intermediair and Nyenrode Business University. Men now earn 16.4 percent more than in 2021, while women saw an average increase of 9.1 percent in the past two years. In the European Union, the gender pay gap is a staggering 13 percent. Jolanda Sappelli shares her views on combating the gender pay gap and the work that lie ahead for organizations. The key: active management of this issue.

Where does a.s.r. stand regarding the gender pay gap?
‘We do not need a European directive to close the gender pay gap at a.s.r. The pay gap here is virtually closed. I have been working at a.s.r. for ten years, and this issue has been high on the agenda for most of this period, and with success. We consider equal pay on our shop floor important. Not only because of equality between men and women, but because it is about diversity and its significance for the organization. Diversity and inclusivity contribute to discovering and developing talent.’

How can a gender pay gap be recognized within an organization?
‘It is not that easily discernible as figures on employment conditions and your staff composition mean nothing when simply compared side by side. Factors like an employee's tenure, education, experience, and age come into play. A good database and an HR system are prerequisites for a proper analysis of wage differences.’

What is your role in reducing the gender pay gap to zero?
‘Closing the gender pay gap falls under my responsibility as the CHRO of this organization. I have my own data team that maps developments in wages, gender, positions, experience, and talent. Once a year, we have this data examined by an external party. If you look at the unadjusted data, we still see differences in pay between men and women. But after adjusting for age, scale, position, education, and experience, those differences disappear.’

How did you manage to find the key to closing the gender pay gap?
‘First, we systematically examine recruitment and internal employee mobility. Job interviews always involve both a man and a woman to prevent a one-sided view of an applicant. Additionally, we offer training for conducting interviews, teaching our employees to be aware of biases. For managers, these are mandatory training sessions offered through our leadership academy. They learn how to recognize biases, unconscious prejudices about men and women. If they do not recognize them, who will?
Moreover, when evaluating employees, we do not focus solely on their performance but also on their talent. What potential does someone have? We try to identify top talent this way. We also have an extensive DE&I policy (DE&I stands for diversity, equality, and inclusion, editor's note). We look at the male-female ratio, which will result in shifts in our pool of top talent. The gender ratio there is fifty-fifty, in line with our goal for the progression of women in our organization.’

How likely is it that a.s.r. will still need to make adjustments when the European directive is converted into legislation?
‘I do not think we will need to take additional measures. We already conduct extensive research into how we handle our employees. For compensating employees, we follow market norms. We are transparent about this with our staff.’

Does closing the gender pay gap mean intervening if an employee does not negotiate their best deal during a salary negotiation?
‘Fortunately, that does not happen here. Our employees' salary development is not a matter of the strongest negotiator winning. It is crucial that we arrange employment conditions well at the beginning of a career, with clear criteria for talent development and data that are objectively measurable. For further salary development, we have a good salary structure and job classifications outlining the conditions for the next step. This prevents salary increases from depending on negotiations and financial performance. A.s.r. has no variable pay.’

How do you communicate this to create support in the workplace?
‘We convey this through our DE&I policy. We have special ambassadors within the organization and we share our DE&I policy with the works council. We keep them informed about our measures and results. The works council serves as an excellent gauge of how the shop floor views this issue. It is an excellent body to challenge us and keep us on our toes.
We also have an organizational success scan performed by an outside party, precisely indicating the priority our DE&I policy has among managers and their views on the measures we take in this area.’

What other initiatives are important to close the gender pay gap?
‘Ensure you have active policies in place. It is not difficult to formulate policies, but it is important to actively steer with the available information. Promote your plans, explain why they are important, and what you aim to achieve with them. We invest considerable attention in this area in our leadership academy.’

How do you know if your measures against the gender pay gap are effective?
‘By not only conveying policy but also measuring the results. We have a dashboard where we report progress. Insight shows where adjustments are needed. These are sometimes clearly visible. Take our governance; we made an adjustment in which the male/female ratio is well reflected. Our management board expanded from three to six people. The ratio between men and women is now fifty-fifty. Setting a good example at the highest level is important.’

For measuring a gender pay gap, a lot of information from employees is necessary. How far can you go in this regard considering privacy laws?
‘Privacy is a contentious issue. You can indeed not include all employee information in management information. But you can use external KPIs. For example, we participate in the CBS cultural diversity index and we have a special participation desk for employees who are at a distance to the labour market. The data from this index is information we communicate externally for our DE&I policy.’

What benefits come from closing the gender pay gap between men and women?
‘When differences in wages disappear, not only do more women enter the workforce, but the internal mobility of women also increases. More women progress to other roles. This is beneficial for the balance in talent development.’

a.s.r. recently acquired Aegon Netherlands. To what extent can you implement the vision on the gender pay gap in the integration with this new business unit?
‘You cannot just do what you want to. Regarding the integration of Aegon Netherlands, we follow the rules applicable to this process. However, we still manage to combine the best of both worlds. Aegon has a strong diversity network, which we gladly utilize. Just like we use other networks, because why not leverage others' knowledge and experience? We participate in ‘Talent naar de Top’ (Talent to the Top), offering boardroom coaching to women. For every target group, we try to establish contacts within existing networks.’

What advice do you have for companies that want to start addressing the gender pay gap?
‘Actively engage with the topic. Step out of your comfort zone, critically examine your own biases, and see what happens when you set them aside. You do not necessarily need to formalize a diversity and inclusion policy first. Just start with your own team. See what you need, what you can do, and how it plays out in practice. Then you will already be well on your way.’

Interview by Anne-Barbara Lemmens, Senior Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead at Deloitte. Published in Management Scope 09 2023.

This article was last changed on 24-10-2023