Enough already? How to get women to stop talking about the pay gap

10/09/2017 01:15 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2017

Salary inequity matters, and not just to the working stiffs. Celebrities including Emma Stone and Patricia Arquette, and executives at top logo companies such as Salesforce, SAP and the BBC, have brought equal pay for equal work into the foreground. Despite laws that have been in place for decades – and those that recently passed – the pay gap continues to be a problem many are trying to solve, with little success.

While talking about the long-running pay gap in the technology industry on Greater Boston recently, host Jim Braude asked me, “If new industries like tech can’t figure it out, what makes us think that older industries will?” It was a fair question and I knew the answer but was too afraid to blurt it out. I’m feeling braver now, so here it is: until closing the pay gap is a priority for the c-suite and the boardroom, it’s not going to be solved. The technology, brainpower and now some local laws, exist to solve it. We even have awareness in the mainstream. The people in charge are running out of excuses.

Why the pay gap matters

At the current pace of change, it will take until 2085 for businesswomen’s salaries to be on par with their male counterparts; however, if we wait that long for change, we are missing out on creating some serious economic growth.

If women in the workforce today were paid equally to men, $12 trillion dollars would be added to the global economy. To put that into perspective, it equals more than the combined GDPs of France, Japan and the United Kingdom. By 2020 that number grows another $6 trillion. Considering women influence or are directly responsible for 80 - 90 percent of consumer purchase decisions, and they tend to reinvest the majority of their money in the people around them, more money in women’s pockets means more money for businesses and communities.

How leaders can do the right thing… finally

State and city governments have stepped in with stronger employment guidelines, starting in Massachusetts last year, to ban salary history as a determinant for future pay. The impact of these new policies remains to be seen and the courts are beginning to weigh in on the legality. The cold hard truth is the pay gap is (mostly) management’s problem to solve. Here are three steps management can take to close the salary gap once and for all:

1. Hold leaders accountable in a public way

Tone is always set at the top. Several small and large local business leaders don’t support pay gap legislation for fear that operating costs would increase. In addition, some are worried increasing pay for women will result in decreasing salaries for men. Changing polarizing cultural traits requires the full and visible support of the C-suite and the boardroom in the form of corporate policy, regular public progress updates and investment in new processes, enterprise technology and applications, and training.

2. Move beyond blame-and-shame tactics and into a systems view

Business leaders should move pay gap conversations toward systems that focus on content, processes and practices. Process re-engineering to detect hidden bias is being addressed by existing and emerging technology such as machine learning and augmented intelligence, but technology only goes so far in systematic cultural shifts. Rethinking relevant data points in system and people decisions so they don’t include one’s name, gender or skin color, and instead focus on value delivered to customers and the business, is key.

3. Un-train unconscious bias in HR and hiring managers

The glass ceiling is most prominent at the middle manager level, which makes sense, as these are the people who are responsible for the majority of the workforce. Their professional behaviors, informed by the 150 different unconscious biases at play in the brain at any given time, are reinforced by HR practices. Addressing unconscious bias directly through decision-interruption techniques and tools at critical salary decision-points is the only way to detect and eradicate bias without the alienating blame-and-shame tactics feared by some male members of the workforce.

Money accelerates a person’s ability to garner power, independence and influence, so it’s perplexing why equal pay isn’t deemed important. Currently, women make less money than men when performing the same work and delivering the same if not better outcomes. More money in the hands of women will result in more money spent on goods and services and more capital invested back into the communities in which we all live. Our economic growth as a nation is dependent on fully engaging every member of the workforce, not just half. It’s time to rethink the status quo.

Dr. Patti Fletcher is author of the forthcoming book, Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break The Mold, and expert on helping executives create change around bias, diversity and inclusion in their businesses. She currently works for SAP on enhancing its HR cloud suite of solutions to enable businesses to move beyond bias.

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