02/25/2014 01:17 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

You Can't Have Equal Pay Without Equal Opportunity

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Much is written today about the wage gap between women and men in the workplace. In 2012, the typical American woman who worked full time, year-round was still only paid $.77 for every dollar paid to a man. The gap needs to be closed and we, as feminists or as supporters of women, can easily support its closure.

Certainly there are many factors contributing to this gap: education, types of circumstances, caregiving responsibilities, etc. But, can women actually get paid the same as men if they are not given the same opportunities in the workplace? Inequality exists for women even when they at the same education and job level as men. Is there a discrepancy in work assignments and responsibilities that result in a difference in pay between men and women? Is there another reason for the gaps in compensation?

We would like to believe that the answer is no. In the 21st century, things are fair and there is equality between the sexes. But I believe if you dig deeper into the issue, you will discover in many organizations an unstated, unrecognized undercurrent that keeps many women away from attaining the same status, the same caché and therefore the same pay as men.

So consider this recent example. A very personable, high-achieving woman law firm partner recently complained to me that a new "team" had been designated by a very senior male partner to focus on a particular high-profile client. The idea was to bring together a cross section of partners to meet with the client and to make sure the client had the appropriate contacts for new work. Unfortunately, not one woman was included on this team. This is a senior partner who she claims champions women for leadership roles and would never be viewed as doing anything that would overtly discriminate. Yet the one thing that could result in more pay or equal pay eluded this highly qualified woman. You have to ask yourself, why? And how can we address this fundamental problem so that there is equal opportunity leading to equal pay?

Here are some thoughts:

1. You don't have to be male to be one of the guys. Most of us are in organizations that respect women and strive for equality. So if this is the case, why do some opportunities elude us? Part of the answer is that we still, to some extent, hold ourselves separate and apart from the men. How often do I see a group of guys going to lunch without a female attendee? At the same time, I see women heading to lunch with their female friends to talk about kids, husbands and whatever. We have to make an effort to be seen and be part of the same group. If the men are holding the opportunity cards, we need to make sure that they are thinking of us and that we are front and center in their world. This doesn't mean we shouldn't get together with other women. We should do both (see 6 below).

2. Educate, educate, educate. We may have succeeded in pushing more women onto corporate boards, but we must examine where we are at all levels of an organization. We should see equal opportunity for women and men as managers, vice presidents, etc. -- not just in the C-suite. Numbers and percentages should be kept and when institutions fail at all job levels, we should hold them accountable. We must have metrics and use the metrics to close the gaps.

3. Change the Dialogue. At the same time, it is important that we as women change the dialogue. The issue should never be whether an ambitious woman can be a successful wife, mother and CEO. We don't ask this question of men and should not question a woman's right and ability to handle all her personal roles in a manner that is both fulfilling to her and responsive to her employer. Recognizing that it is a woman's right to decide how to balance, the organization should never presume what her answer might be and we should not criticize her choice. The dialogue should, instead, always center on qualifications.

4. Women MUST embrace the roles that result in higher compensation. Women have great managerial and organizational skills, so often organizations put them in roles where those traits are valued. In some businesses, these roles can be viewed as significant and are compensated accordingly. But in other organizations these activities are not revenue-generating and, although valued, don't add to the bottom line for compensation purposes. Women must look at their organizations and make sure they have a clear understanding of what is valued for compensation purposes. Then they should seek out those roles.

5. Ask for the opportunity. I know there is a fine line between being too pushy and not pushy enough. But we can't expect to have the same opportunity if we don't ask for it. How we ask is another matter. Threatening will probably not work. But pointing out the issue and using reasoning and compelling information should result in change. Many men want parity in opportunity for women, yet feel more comfortable with those they know when actually handing out the assignments. Make them understand. Make them know that you want it. If enough voices are heard in unison and if facts are used to support the ultimate goal, I believe change will occur.

6. Create your own women's network. For the past few years, I have aggressively tried to bring other women onto my teams. As women, we must promote other women and champion their right to have opportunity. At the same time, we must provide solutions that can relieve women of some of their other responsibilities so they can assume these new roles. A well-maintained network is a great resource for information and cheerleading.

Ultimately, equal pay will no longer be an issue as women continue to push through the glass ceiling and succeed in their new roles. But, we have a responsibility to push forward the evolutionary change that is occurring. The evolution has taken way too long and we owe it our daughters and to future generations to keep moving it forward as fast as we can.