Decoding the Path to Equal Pay

Still considered taboo to many Americans, talking about pay is up there with politics and religion when it comes to what to not talk about with strangers or loved ones at the dinner table. Culturally, it’s one of those topics that many would prefer to keep private. Yet, privacy breeds secrets and lends itself to creating additional falsehoods and distortions. Not talking about pay is one of the contributing factors to unequal pay in the U.S. between men and women.

Ignoring all social norms, PayScale put a magnifying glass on the topic and brought it into the light for Equal Pay Day (with mimosas!) for an open discussion with experts about the topic. The bright panel led by Lydia Frank from PayScale included Christy Johnson, Artemis Connection; Peter Hamilton, Tune; and Elizabeth Weingarten, New America.

What are we talking about when we say Equal Pay?
Let’s start by taking a step back and defining “equal pay.” While generally understood as an issue, how people think about it still varies. But for the sake of the event, equal pay was defined in two parts.

  1. Equal pay for equal work. This part of the equal pay discussion specifically refers to what experts call the “controlled pay gap.” It examines the pay difference between men and women performing the same work with similar backgrounds, e.g. education and professional experience.
  2. All women and all men working in the U.S. This framework is used to generate the sound bite, “a woman makes ¢78 on every $1 a man makes.” This part of the discussion is closely related to the talent pipeline part of the issue. It stems from the fact that women have traditionally been underrepresented in higher paying careers often found in leadership roles and STEM fields.

Both pieces of the equal pay discussion are important when talking about the issue. PayScale’s event placed a strong emphasis on improving the pipeline in terms of helping women further elevate themselves into leadership roles and empowering them to acquire skills needed for in-demand jobs.

Where Gender Inequality Takes Root
In today’s fast moving work culture, it’s become too common for companies to put off creating policies that support gender equality in the workplace. This happens frequently in technology companies in the early phases of development rushing to get their product to market. Often this leads to corners being cut and sacrifices being made. On this altar are systems often taken for granted in large organizations such as market-based pay structures and policies that support diversity.

Christy experienced this with one of her own startups that was comprised primarily of women at the start. When she attempted to add a man to the team, many of the women in her organization initially pushed back on the idea, fearing the change of dynamic it might bring to the organization.

“Fixing gender equality later is hard,” Christy explained. “The recent Susan J. Fowler episode at Uber is a perfect example. Changing habits is harder than writing initial policies. Organizational debt, like technical debt, is a lot of baggage for a company to take on and move forward with.”

How to Start a Conversation About Equal Pay
Starting a conversation about equal pay is an important first step in addressing the issue. Christy was quick to point out women and minorities often see discrimination majorities don’t acknowledge immediately. This often leads to the equal pay issue being obscured from the C-Suite’s vantage point.

Peter agreed with the sentiment but also expressed the importance of having a multilateral approach.

“At Tune we had a number of passionate contributors who helped make gender equality an important part of our company,” Peter explained. “Tune had and has visionaries that lead a lot of the discussions within our company. They’re internal advocates who got the discussion started with brainstorming sessions and creating new ideas to enact change.”

One idea that was born out of this was Tune House, a house for female students at UW pursuing (or aspiring to pursue) degrees in computer science, computer engineering, or information technology. Tune is also actively involved with Ignite Worldwide, a program designed to get more women into STEM fields. With both endeavors Tune hopes to play a role in addressing the pipeline issue; make women aware at an early age, STEM is a possible career path.

Building a Pathway for Change
Change isn’t easy and rarely happens overnight. Half the battle panelists explained is getting started. Especially in the early stages of trying to enact change, it can feel like a Herculean task. To move forward, it’s important to take a step back, gather the appropriate data within your organization to build a case and then develop policies and action focused initiatives designed to align your vision of gender equality in your company with its mission. And while it’s ideal to tie the objective of gender equality directly to ROI at first, it’s important to remember big goals don’t always drive revenue immediately.

Panelists also stressed the importance of withholding judgment and not judging others too harshly because of their held biases. Instead, the panel recommended looking for ways to help people overcome their own failings through conversation. Christy recommended women share their gender discrimination experiences with male coworkers to boost awareness.  Peter agreed with this idea; his conversations with women at Tune and other professional women (including his own mom) opened his eyes to what they were experiencing daily.

How Organizations Can Advocate for Equal Pay
Christy provided the below roadmap to help organizations get going on the path towards creating fair pay structures.

  1. Gather data to understand where you’re starting and what’s true
  2. Set achievable goals
  3. Be transparent and communicate results
  4. Experiment and try differing approaches, aka agile gender equality
  5. Remember it’s a long-term issue, not a quick solution
  6. Be intentional at all levels; you’ll need to communicate it in a variety of different formats

How Individuals Can Advocate for Equal Pay
On the individual contributor level, the panel advised the audience to know their own worth and keep a regular stock of their personal skills along with industry trends.

“It’s important to know your worth,” Elizabeth said. “Know your worth intrinsically and extrinsically. For example, Fowler knew how talented she was and wasn’t afraid to move when she experienced discrimination at Uber.”

To get to this point of self-realization, it’s important, to be honest, clear, and aware of what you bring to the table. Confidence in yourself is key. Employers are impressed when potential employees know their worth. Conversations about worth and negotiations don’t have to be adversarial. It’s important for both employers and employees to work together to arrive at fair compensation.

Finally, the panel agreed it’s important to help others coming up behind you. Instead of seeing the barriers you experienced as a necessary trial to success, women and minorities in the workplace have an opportunity to serve as mentors and coaches to future generations. To reach this mental state, the panel suggested reviewing past experiences in your own life where someone sponsored or mentored you. Rarely people get to where they are by themselves; with this in mind, the panel encouraged the audience to pay it forward by looking for ways to create opportunities for other people in the workplace.

In Closing
Progress towards gender equality is an ongoing discussion and project. Working to solve the issue requires dialogue, data, a desire to create change.

Thank you to PayScale for hosting a wonderful event at its headquarters. As a male advocate for gender equality, I’m always interested in learning more about the topic and discovering additional ways to move the cause forward.

What is your experience with gender issues in the workplace?

Full Facebook Live Broadcast of the Event