THE BLOG
04/12/2016 04:20 pm ET

Taking on the Risk and Reward of Gender Pay Equity

So long as a gender pay gap is known to persist in the U.S. workforce, every working woman will be plagued by it. If she is a casualty of it, she is harmed by incomplete income. If she doesn't know for sure, she suffers from the damage of doubt.

As a father of three daughters, that's an upsetting realization.

As a CEO in an industry that is 70 percent women, that's an unacceptable risk. And a risk that's past time to eliminate, because doubts related to pay inequality can have very real consequences. They can lead to lowered confidence, reduced trust in colleagues and leadership, decreased performance, and even active disengagement from the job. We cannot hope to be at our best as a business if seven out of 10 employees believe they are unfairly undervalued.

I speak often about our commitments to our people at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and for good reason. Retaining people is the biggest challenge that agencies face and the most consistent driver of client satisfaction, and, by extension, business success. Just as a technology firm might invest most heavily in R&D, we invest most heavily in our people. We've seen it pay off. When we launched a new suite of policies in 2014 to support our people's professional and personal development inside and outside our walls, including an industry-leading paid leave policy for parents, we saw employee turnover drop 5 percentage points, with a consequential reduction in our client loss. The two go hand in hand.

We decided our next step was to take a look at our gender pay data to see how we measured up. After we looked at the macro level ourselves, and were pleased with what we saw, we decided to push ourselves further and turned to the expertise of Dr. Martha Burk, co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., and a nationally recognized expert in women's issues and pay equity, to conduct a deeper audit of our employment records.

I heard from her what I hoped I'd hear - that no "glass ceilings" are present in our firm and that we are "truly ahead of the curve in eliminating gender pay gaps." And she also provided us with a more robust way of looking at our numbers, sound advice about what data to scrutinize moving forward, and guidance on what we can be doing to ensure constant improvement.

This expert independent audit was the preliminary step we wanted to complete before making three commitments to our staff that aim to eliminate doubts about pay equity and help ensure fairness in our compensation practices:

  • Pay Analysis and Review (PAR). We will proactively examine our pay data at the macro and micro level annually to ensure the compensation of our women and men begins -- and advances -- fairly.
  • Leadership-led adjustments. If the PAR identifies an unfair pay gap emerging, our leadership team - with support straight from the C-suite - will proactively work to adjust employee pay through our existing merit-based review cycles and practices.
  • Counteracting unconscious bias. All employees, with an emphasis on managers, will complete unconscious bias training to help control for factors shown to impact advancement and compensation of a number of minorities. The goal is to foster a culture where all employees are aware of bias and actively seek to reduce it.

Now that we're on this path, what had been an unacceptable risk can become an opportunity, for us and for our clients. Having been through this rigorous process once, we are now better-positioned to counsel clients who are also ready to be bold and take steps related to gender equality and pay equity. We've proudly walked in their shoes.

I hope that in the not-so-distant future, we see enough advancement on the issue of gender pay that the need to observe Equal Pay Day will become an outdated notion. In the meantime, I'd suggest to skeptical CEOs that they look at this issue in the context of risk and reward. Retaining great talent is consistently ranked as one of the most difficult problems facing businesses today. By tackling these tough issues, these problems can become opportunities - to maximize employee engagement, decrease employee turnover, and lead to growth.

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