How Do We Make Sense of Equal Pay Day? Unequal Pay is NOT a Deliberate Plot Against Women

I am writing this essay on Equal Pay Day, the day in the year that symbolizes how far into the new year women must work to make what men did in the prior year. I am all for equal pay for equal work, but the gender salary gap is a complex, multi-dimensional problem that is not easily solved.

I’ve touched on the difficulty women have in asking for more money in another essay (The Crone in the Corner Office: “Money Makes the World Go Around,” August 25, 2016). There is much research that documents that we women often start out with lower salaries because we have a harder time than men do in asking for money at the outset of a salary negotiation and thus often start out in the same job with a salary gap. That gap only increases across our working life. However, once we’re made aware of that weakness, learning to ask is a skill we can develop and fortify. It is within our own control. I believe the more damaging factors are subtle, hidden, furtive and nearly impossible to call out: the unconscious bias in the workplace that results in women being hired, assessed, reviewed and promoted differently than men are, and all the while these biases are vehemently denied to exist.

Much has been written about preventing bias in the hiring process. What happens once a woman is hired? How do unconscious biases keep the glass ceiling intact? Research has demonstrated that the performance review process is rife with unconscious biases that reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, a study by Kieran Snyder in 2014 in which she collected performance reviews from women and men working in the tech industry, demonstrated that women were significantly more likely to receive negative feedback. Deeper analysis showed that this negative feedback was often based on personality traits and was often very different to the feedback received by men for similar behavior. For example, men might be considered confident and assertive while the same behavior in a female peer might be considered abrasive.

Words used in the critical reviews of female staff included: abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational. Out of these words only the word aggressive was occasional used for men.

Perhaps even more concerning (at least to me) are some of the results coming out of research being conducted at Stanford’s Claymen Institute for Gender Research, in which investigators have found that managers perceive women to have better team based skills while they see men as more independent. These assumptions result in women and men being guided to different career paths, with men being favored for leadership positions.

The Stanford research also finds that women are described as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” nearly twice as much as men while men’s reviews use words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.”

These differences matter. When participants in a corporate workshop about unconscious bias were asked which of two candidates they would pick to replace a top performer in their organization, about 90% selected the person described in terms of individual initiative – the same words that turn up in men’s performance reviews.

What will help women achieve pay parity with men? Every women working in business today should become familiar with the Paradigm for ParitySM. Launched by a diverse group of business leaders in December of 2016, their platform is a call to action and model for gender equality in business by offering a 5-point Paradigm for ParitySM roadmap:

  • Minimize or eliminate unconscious bias.
    • Initiate unconscious bias training with men and women of all levels from the CEO and senior leadership.
    • Ensure that your company leaders comprehend, own and address the conscious and unconscious biases that prevent women from succeeding.
  • Significantly increase the number of women in senior operating roles.
    • Make full gender parity (50/50) the ultimate goal but short term commit that a single gender will not account for more than 70% of a leadership role from Executive Management downward.
  • Measure targets at every level and communicate progress and results regularly.
    • Set measureable goals and hold you and your senior team accountable.
    • Expect meaningful progress every year.
    • Aim for parity by 2030.
    • Share statistics with other CEOs.
  • Base career progress on business results and performance, not on presence.
    • Give women and men control over where and how they work, whenever workable.
    • Acknowledge the needs and expectations of Millennials, an important talent pool.
    • Find ways to work more flexibly.
  • Identify women of potential and give them sponsors as well as mentors.
    • Meritocracy is an often used and misused belief because our biases affect our view of performance and merit.
    • Women of all backgrounds need career sponsors and access to networks of influence.
    • Men play a critical role in advocating for women.

It is truly an impressive agenda and an equally impressive toolkit is provided to help companies look at themselves and begin changing from the inside.

But where does that leave us as individuals? I don’t run a mid-sized company anymore or I would join this initiative by pledging to meet these goals as a CEO. As an individual, I’m sharing it first with the businesses with which I spend my money: my financial advisors, my upscale goods businesses, etc.

And I will continue to write about unconscious bias in management and leadership and how it hurts the business and hurts the bottom line. I hope my readers – men and women – will start examining their own unconscious bias and ask their companies to do the same.

“The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs. Self-conceit often regards it as a sign of weakness to admit that a belief to which we have once committed ourselves is wrong. We get so identified with an idea that it is literally a “pet” notion and we rise to its defense and stop our eyes and ears to anything different.”         John Dewey


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