I was gently cycling my way back home after a long day in the office when the traffic light turned red. The woman in front of me stopped and so did I, followed by two more girls on bikes just behind me. The pedestrian crossing was clear, but we all gathered near the line, waiting. All of a sudden, a man wiggled and weaved his way through us, glanced on both sides and rode off elegantly. The exact same thing happened three more times in just under 30 seconds. When the light turned green again, we four pedaled away at our own pace and that was it.
Only that it wasn’t. This episode stayed with me for longer than that evening and remains with me today as I write about gender equal pay. Women’s careers has been shown to decelerate for many reasons and, among them, research suggests lack of confidence and a deep belief in the ideal that the workplace is fair (despite many accounts proving the contrary). On the other hand, men are used to making their own rules and molding the environment so that it adapts to their needs. Crossing the road without waiting for the green sign is of course a metaphor, but it helps bring home the fact that the way women and men interact daily with the world is fundamentally different.
Direct or indirect discrimination against women is an issue I care deeply about, and I am lucky enough to work in an industry where I can voice my objections and touch some of the elements that impact inequality in the workplace. I fully support the theory that women have the burdensome duty to push the agenda, fight for justice, and stretch themselves if they want to achieve any result.
But that’s only part of the story, and the bike event gave me a little kick to address the equal pay for equal work matter. If it is true that women have not been accustomed to ask for more and have generally been accepting of the status quo, then society must ensure they help them achieve what they want by creating a truly fair place for them to thrive.
Thanks to long-overdue public disclosures of company data in some countries, today we know many real facts about the gender pay gap. We know that, globally, women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that it will take another 70 years at the current rate before closing that gap. We also know that things get worse if you are a mother, a minority, or live in developing countries.
Statistics of this kind are rich and endless, and UN Women.org among others has done a superb job in capturing all kind of related material to promote gender equality worldwide.
However, the one big absentee is data on equal pay for equal work. Women have fought for it for over a century and evidence suggests we are still in deep battle. In principle, everyone performing the same or a similar role must be paid the same. The reality is that women generally fall behind, and this is where HR has the opportunity and privilege to set things right.
Besides the idea of fairness or the professional integrity of the HR department, equal pay is critical to businesses for three key reasons:
- Motivational factors. It has been frequently alleged that women are not motivated in the same way as men are; this might be true in some cases but recent research suggests that the difference is generally negligible. The fact that women are less likely to ask for a pay rise should not lead us to thinking that they do not care about money. Moreover, even though extrinsic motivators like money do not, by themselves, represent a sustainable strategy to engage employees they are nevertheless an important push when it comes to productivity, commitment, and involvement.
- Business sustainability. Paying people based on the value they bring to the company rather than on whether they are men or women supports smooth role transitions, talent transfer, and eases succession planning.
- Legality issues. If the above two points are not enough, should an organization be found guilty of unequal pay conduct, the legal consequences are, as expected, very significant as is reputational brand damage.
What can we do about it?
As a first step, organizations need to focus on evaluating each role and mapping similar jobs so as to achieve a consistent value-based salary framework. This exercise prepares the ground for the commercial decision making process that follows.
The practicalities of redistributing money among employees is a fine balancing act that requires close collaboration with finance alongside a skillful communication plan. Sharing the vision to fight sexist discrimination to every employee, in fact, will ensure buy-in from the start: Who wants to work in a place that is unlawful and unfair?
Finally, implementing a process to monitor any future change will maintain the reality of the vision and put this germinating initiative into the business as usual activities bucket.
I am not suggesting this is easy. But while the gender pay gap is the product of multiple factors, including conscious biases, education, societal roles, and self-limiting beliefs, equal pay is very much contained within the practices and culture of a business, and we have the professional duty to do everything we can to achieve gender equality.
Equality cannot be the result of a discretionary decision, and even though women must keep overcoming personal inhibiting behaviors, organizations have the power to allow them to enjoy the same opportunities and wiggle and weave their way forward rather than stay behind and wait for an arbitrary green light to come.