Published: 06:00, 03 June 2019
| Updated: 19:38, 03 June 2019
Women taking time off work to have children is being used as an excuse to pay men more money, according to female business leaders in Kent.
By law, employees of both sexes must be paid equally for the doing the same role.
Instead, gender pay gap is the difference in the average hourly wage of all men and women across a workforce.
Government data analysed by KentOnline shows only 22 out of 253 companies in Kent pay the women they employ more than their male counterparts.
Scroll down for reaction to the figures
Kent's area lead for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Deborah Turner, says maternity leave does not affect the performance of women at work.
She said: "Women having children can be used as an excuse by employers as to why men are paid more.
"Having children doesn't mean they are going to perform differently when they come back."
Sue Nelson, chief executive of Breakthrough Funding, based in Ashford, thinks maternity leave can have an impact on female careers.
But she agrees with Mrs Turner this is not the cause of the gender pay gap.
She said: "Having children sets women back a few years but I don't think this is really an issue."
Instead, Ms Nelson, who has made her way to the top of a male-dominated industry, believes two changes are needed to close the gap.
"Management teams have to question their recruitment and whether they are doing anything which puts women off.
"I think a lot of the time, this is not done on purpose but businesses are missing out on female talent because it's not being promoted or encouraged.
"Another problem is women aren't brilliant at putting themselves forward. They need to realise they can go for the top jobs.
"In my own business, we have to spend quite a lot of time with our female staff to help them gain confidence."
Mrs Turner agrees recruitment style is a big problem.
She said: "Men recruit differently to women so it is much better to have a panel when interviewing.
"Even when writing a job advert, men can subconsciously attract other men to the job.
"We need to educate people how to hire the right person, whatever their gender, ethnicity or culture."
Of the 22 businesses in Kent where women get paid more than men, 14 are in the leisure, care or cleaning sectors.
This could be because these industries are more female-oriented.
Ms Nelson said: "If there are more women working in a business, it makes sense there will be more women in senior roles, so they are therefore paid more.
"But I get really angry when there is a balance of staff across a company but men are getting paid much more - this is utterly inexcusable."
Mrs Turner, who is also women in business national lead at the FSB, added: "I think the main thing we need to do is raise awareness.
"Women may never have known they are getting paid less than men without these statistics being published.
But, as Ms Nelson puts it: "It's not just enough to look at the figures - we need to do something about it."
More by this authorRebecca Tuffin