WHEN his government decided in 2015 that large businesses should be compelled to publish their gender pay-gap data then prime minister David Cameron said the move would “cast sunlight on the discrepancies” between what men and women are paid in order to create the pressure needed to drive women’s wages up.

It was painted at the time as a bold move that would eradicate workplace inequalities within a generation, building on earlier laws requiring men and women to be paid equally for work of equal value by requiring employers to declare publicly what men and women doing completely different jobs are paid in order to come up with some kind of a comparison.

Two years into the reporting period and what have we learned? Beyond that men typically earn more than women, not very much at all. Thanks to the ill-conceived method of calculation, which takes no account of the kind of jobs people are doing, how long they have been doing them for or the hours they are doing them in, the gender pay-gap stats tell us practically nothing about the intricacies of workplace inequalities, making them probably the bluntest tool possible for improving the situation where those equalities do exist.

Between 2017 and 2018 the overall median pay gap in the UK shrank slightly, from 9.7 per cent to 9.6%, meaning that for every pound a middle-earning man earned a middle-earning woman earned 90p. The difference varies widely between industry sectors, although overall 78% of employers have a pay gap that favours men while 45% said their gap had widened in favour of men between the two years.

So far, so bad, right? Well, not necessarily when you consider that some employers saw their pay gaps worsen precisely because they had taken action to try to address them. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is a case in point. As the representative body for a profession that is conspicuously dominated by men, it was always likely that the organisation’s senior roles - and so its pay gap - would be too. Yet it is largely because it hired more women at the junior end with the longer-term aim of improving the gender balance across its ranks that RIBA saw its pay gap widen from 4% to 10% between 2017 and 2018. It is a nuance the reporting system was not built to recognise.

Not that it would necessarily be positive even if it was. The legal sector has long been dominated by women at the junior end, with females significantly outnumbering males in trainee and junior solicitor positions. Though a major shift in the last couple of years means many Scottish law firms are now co-led by a man and a woman, because firms are still grappling with how best to implement family-friendly working practices - which too often is taken to mean female-friendly working practices - partnership remains very much a male domain. And, guess what? That means law-firm pay gaps almost exclusively favour men too.

In and of itself all the pay-gap data does is indicate what we already know: that lower-value, part-time and junior roles tend to be filled by women while higher-value, full-time and senior ones are typically dominated by men. Reporting the gaps won’t change that. And while there are obvious problems with the system of reporting - not least that it lumps everyone in together before crudely comparing means and medians - the big mistake David Cameron made was to position pay-gap reporting as an end in itself without requiring employers to come up with ways of addressing them. Worse still, the policy came with neither incentives to promote good practice nor sanctions to deter bad.

Some businesses have taken action off their own bats. Drinks giant Diageo - whose manufacturing-based Scottish arm has a pay gap that favours men and office-based English business one that favours women - has overhauled its benefits package to give male and female employees six months’ paid leave when they become parents in a move that could prove revolutionary. In recognising that fathers as well as mothers are invested in their children’s upbringing the company has also paved the way for both male and female staff to think about what kind of working pattern might suit their personal needs.

Allowing men to experience the issues associated with returning to work after an extended period of leave could also be the best possible way of effecting change from within: nothing fosters understanding like a bit of lived experience.

What is clear after two years’ worth of statistical reports is that we need to change the conversations we are having about gender pay, why differences exist and how they can be ameliorated. It’s not good enough to explain it away by saying men hold more senior positions - we need to ask why. Then we need to rethink how different roles are valued, how success is measured and how we expect jobs to be done so that those positions that pay the most don’t remain a predominantly male preserve and those that offer flexibility don’t remain a female one. If we don’t, the data gathered so far will remain all but meaningless.