Unsticking the floor: How we can open the discussion around the root cause of gender-pay discrepancy and close the gap from bottom to top
In 2015, the US Women’s Soccer Team won their third straight World Cup victory, dramatically raising the reputation (and the revenues) of the sport in this country. In 2016, the team’s top five players filed a lawsuit against the sport’s governing body. Their complaint: Despite outperforming the men’s team for years—and generating $20 million more in revenues in 2015 alone—the women earned almost four times less than their males counterparts.
For Rayona Sharpnack, CEO and founder of the Institute for Gender Partnership™ (IGP) and the Institute for Women's Leadership (IWL), as well as a former professional softball player, the lawsuit brings new light to a long-held struggle for equal pay. When Sharpnack’s team argued in the 1970s for better salaries for female players, they were told that a lack of spectator and sponsor interest (ie, revenue) made that impossible. “This is certainly not the case with the US Women’s Soccer Team, since the Women’s World Cup was the largest-watched soccer event in US history,” Sharpnack says.
It’s certainly not the case in business either. Study after study has shown that companies with women in top leadership positions realize significantly better returns and greater overall success. Yet, ironically, when women reach those top positions—in sectors from healthcare to finance—they actually earn less in proportion to their male counterparts.
In what a 2014 article in The Atlantic calls the “sticky floor” phenomenon, the gender-pay gap widens the higher up women climb on the career ladder. Though men out-earn women across every industry and occupation, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that women earn 90 cents to the dollar compared to men in the 10 lowest-paying jobs (including maids and miscellaneous agricultural workers)—but only 76 cents to the dollar in the 10 highest-paying jobs (including CEOs, surgeons, lawyers and personal finance advisors).
Unconscious bias: The root cause
The obvious question is—why? According to Sharpnack and Carolyn Buck Luce, executive-in-residence and co-founder of the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) and 2012 HBA Woman of the Year (WOTY), the answer lies in unconscious bias.
“While conscious or institutionalized gender bias is not as flagrant as it used to be, research confirms that men, and sometimes women, simply do not value women as highly as men,” Sharpnack says. “In fact, a wide-scale study of US census data from 1950 to 2000 showed that when large numbers of women moved into an occupation, salary rates for that occupation went down even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography.”
This bias, Buck Luce says, manifests in two ways. “When the majority of leaders are men, the culture telegraphs an unconscious archetype of what leaders should look like, and how they should behave,” she explains. “Women are benchmarked against this male-oriented image of ‘executive presence’ and are found wanting—‘not strategic enough, not quite ready, not quite…something.’ And women get it. In our research study ‘The Athena Factor,’ we found that 76% of women in pharma and life sciences perceive gender bias in performance evaluations and 44% believe they have to ‘act like a man’ to reach senior management.”
The reinforcement of these dynamics in our culture have, in turn, created what Buck Luce calls “self-limiting” behavior by women. “Take the example in pop culture of Jennifer Lawrence, star of the ‘Hunger Games,’ who confessed that she hadn’t fought for equal pay because she wanted to be liked,” she says. “Taken together, these dynamics contribute to slower rate of promotions, lateral moves and lower compensation for women.”
It’s time: Pushing for open dialogue and real gender parity
As evidenced by the US Women’s Soccer lawsuit, we’re starting to see women push these self-limited behaviors aside. “Women—and their strong male allies—are simply not going to take it anymore,” Sharpnack says. Here’s what she, and other leaders, say we need to do to keep up the momentum:
Change the talent management system: Both Buck Luce and Lisa George, VP of global talent for international at Walmart, call for organizations to recognize the structural unconscious bias embedded into talent management systems and re-engineer them.
For George, this starts with ensuring a diverse slate and normalizing the qualifications used in talent reviews. At her previous position as VP of global talent management for Cardinal Health, she and her team brought in experts to help leaders. “Often, bias emerges through innocent comments with no ill intent,” George explains. “Such as when leadership is considering a woman for a role that requires international travel and someone says, ‘Well, she just had a baby. She’s probably not going to want to do that.’” George’s expert would step in at this moment to say, “If she were a man, would we be having this conversation? No. If she’s qualified for the role, let’s let her make that decision.”
And when women do need flexibility for periods of time in their job, Buck Luce adds that this should be embraced—and, in fact, promoted for both women and men (the latter of whom are becoming primary caregivers at increasingly higher rates). “Most working moms are either single or have spouses who work. They need flexibility to handle the demands they face,” she explains. “Our research shows that a full 60% of highly talented women have ‘non-linear’ careers, and that women’s earning power drops an average of 28% when they take time out—a drop that is not equated with productivity or outcomes, but is instead the effect of the assumption that women are not as committed or ambitious as men.”
George further stresses that companies must once-and-for-all let go of the implication that the “best talent” and a push for diversity are mutually exclusive. “It goes without saying that we all want the best talent, period,” she explains. “But you have to be overt about encouraging women to put themselves up for consideration, and you have to go out and recruit until you find great talent that is also diverse. They’re out there. They’re just not necessarily the first ones to raise their hands.” At Cardinal Health, George and her team established an additional talent review specifically for diverse talent. “This was our recognition that we needed to be aggressive in mitigating perceived risks and move those talented folks faster, get them sponsors, and give them assignments that would push them forward.”
Increase transparency: “We must endorse transparency and a zero-tolerance for pay discrimination,” Buck Luce says. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Sharpnack agrees, noting that as the healthcare industry continues to move from a business-to-business to a business-to-consumer model, negative public opinion matters more than ever and is driving an increasing number of companies to volunteering publish gender-based salary data. Further, by September 2017, all US companies with 100 or more employees will be required to do so by law.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: According to George, transparency also means open and honest conversations at the individual level. “One of the most powerful things an organization can do is to encourage their people to openly recognize that it’s hard to have these discussions, that things are not always going to go perfectly, and that everyone—from managers to employees—need to own it together.” She explains that for managers, it’s important to be direct and transparent in their feedback to diverse employees, while employees need to have opportunities to be open to—and seek out—that necessary feedback.
Get the men involved: The women agree that male allies are critical. “Male and female senior leaders must lead from the top to make it clear that bias—whether conscious or unconscious—is unacceptable, and must work to be sponsors for talented women, putting their own political capital on the line to bring women up,” George says.
Sharpnack’s Institute for Gender Partnership™ has been seeing authentic partnerships emerge as they reach out to male leaders. “We are showing them how to be heroes,” Sharpnack says. “We are giving them immersion training along with rationale and tools to champion the contributions of the women at their company, help them achieve gender equality and reap the cultural and financial benefits this will bring, and we are seeing very positive results.”
Increasing awareness: “We must continue to air the issue, share the data and arouse concern,” Sharpnack continues. “Organizations like HBA can play a significant role in both highlighting the issues but also leveraging their membership and sponsors to change the landscape. Professional education that includes pay and title negotiation skills is vital.”
George agrees, noting the success of actress Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media, which is sharing data on both the obvious, and the subtle, gender bias in how women are portrayed in popular culture. The Institute’s research has shown, for example, that the average representation of women in crowd scenes is just 17 percent. This, they say, can subtly teach viewers not to notice gender imbalance and accept 17 percent female representation (in crowds, in companies, in Congress) as normal.
George notes that both Walmart and Cardinal Health have worked with Davis’s “Widen the Circle” initiative to increase the number of women in business leadership. It is collaborations and initiatives like these, like the HBA’s recent male executive panel on gender parity and upcoming gender parity summit, like the work of the CTI, IWL, and IGP, and like the press-generating complaints from undeniably successful female leaders like the US Women’s Soccer Team that will continue to raise awareness and, ultimately, help close the gap for good.
The gender-pay gap at a glance
- Men out-earn women across every industry
- Women earn:
- 90 cents to the dollar compared to men in the 10 lowest-paying jobs
- 76 cents to the dollar compared to men in the 10 highest-paying jobs
- Pay disparities abound in healthcare
- Physicians and surgeons are one of the top occupations with the widest gender-pay gaps
- In 2012, women surveyed by the American College of Healthcare Executives earned 20% less than their male counterparts
- Occupations with more women than men have lower overall pay
- Women’s earning power drops an average of 28% when they take time out of the workforce
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