Equal Pay for Equal Work

Originally published in the Yale Daily News on April 14, 2015. 

For graduating seniors, starting salaries are an all-too-common concern, but for soon-to-be alumnae, figuring out next year’s salary may be a little more stressful than for our male counterparts.

From Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech on the gender wage gap to the recent controversial ruling against Ellen Pao in her gender discrimination lawsuit, women’s rights in the workplace have been a hot topic in the last few months. And rightly so. Today, women make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The median weekly earnings for American female doctors working full-time is $1,497 versus $2,087 for men. Women in architecture and engineering earn 83.7 cents to a man’s dollar. The gender pay gap stretches across almost every industry. Even in nursing, a profession where women outnumber men 10 to one, men out-earn women by nearly $7,700 per year in outpatient settings and nearly $3,900 in hospitals. From blue-collar to white-collar jobs, women aren’t getting equal pay for equal work.

While the world these days tells us to “lean in,” it isn’t all that simple.

The wage gap stems not only from the persistent underestimation and under appreciation of women’s contributions in the workplace, but also from stigma surrounding salary negotiations.

Even if a woman knows her worth, negotiating a salary can come with a cost. For years, studies on salary negotiation have shown that the social cost of negotiating for higher pay is greater for women than it is for men. Before we chime in to criticize women for not “leaning in,” we must recognize that women’s hesitancy to ask for a raise often stems from an intuitive sense of the risks.

But the burden of advocating for equal pay should not be shouldered by women alone.

We can start by recognizing women’s worth in the workplace. According to popular gender stereotypes, when men are assertive, they are often called “leaders.” When women do the same, they risk being labeled “bossy” or “pushy.” Men are expected to be ruthless and women nurturing. Because we expect women to fulfill the “mother hen” role, we are less likely to reward them for being a team player.

A recent study by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman found that male employees were continually viewed more favorably than women when giving the same help to a colleague. As Sheryl Sandberg recently noted in The New York Times, this means that women “do the lion’s share of office housework” — with little recognition. It’s time to acknowledge the contributions of women and compensate them fairly. Men can help by volunteering to take over some of the group tasks. By doing so, we can give women more opportunities to have their voices more fully heard.

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit, has a rather innovative idea for the private sector: eliminate the salary negotiation process entirely. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pao noted that “men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate.” Most government jobs have fixed salaries based on title and years of experience. Because these salary rates are public information, workers can easily compare pay, reducing the likelihood that bias will impact compensation. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the wage gap is considerably smaller in the public sector. According to the Office of Personnel Management, between 1992 and 2012, the gender pay gap for public sector workers fell from 30 percent to 13 percent for white-collar workers and 11 percent for General Schedule workers.

Finally, we can more directly confront our unconscious biases. Everyone has them. Taking an Implicit Association Test will quickly disabuse you of the notion that you are the most forward-thinking, progressive person at work. And that’s okay — as long as you work at recognizing and correcting these preferences. Google is a great example of a company at the forefront of this movement in the tech industry. Google made efforts to encourage its employees to confront their biases with the hope that that awareness could help level the playing field.

Today, women make up the majority of college graduates and hold the majority of management and professional positions, but according to the World Economic Forum, I’ll be 102 years old by the time the gender wage gap closes in the United States. While laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 are a good first step towards equal pay, they clearly aren’t the only solution. In order to make sure women are recognized for the vital role they play in the home and the workplace, we must confront the problem at hand

Akinyi OchiengComment