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2059: A Bridge Too Far

What Companies and Individuals can do to Build a Shorter Bridge to Equal Pay

Minding the Gap since 1987

In the 30 years since the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) first opened its doors, the organization has studied the gap in earnings between men and women. Its extensive analysis of the factors related to labor and gender reveals opportunities and tools for both companies and the women who work in them to shorten the bridge to an equitable future. 

Multiple Solutions to a Multi-faceted Problem

As IWPR research indicates, the wage gap figure—now pegged at 20 percent, and even greater for women of color—is nuanced and multi-faceted.

Its biggest contributing factor is occupation. Salaries in low- and mid-level occupations dominated by women—like teaching, child care and other helping professions—are lower than in occupations dominated by men. Yet inequities in careers in the highest wage categories, and where there is a more even distribution of male and female workers, also remain stubbornly in place.

There is no one solution to diminishing the wage gap, says Julie Anderson, a senior researcher at IWPR whose areas of expertise include pay equity and discrimination. But certainly, fundamental to turning the tide will be corporate circumspection and fundamental policy changes instigated by both private enterprise and government.

“Sometimes large companies will sincerely believe they have no gender pay gap, but then they do an internal audit and realize that they do. It’s revealing to them,” says Anderson. “We recommend that companies do these audits, and then work to enact programs and policies that can get at the most entrenched challenges.”

Many people who experience pay or promotion discrimination don’t even know it is occurring, Anderson points out, because of a culture that discourages talk about pay, or because of explicit company policies that forbid it.

“Companies serious about addressing the gap can help by creating good policies. For instance, the burden of proof is currently on the employee to prove wage discrimination, but the employee isn’t going to have payroll records, performance reviews and other documentation needed to make her case,” she explains. “So company policies that address payroll fairness can shift the burden of proof to the employers, and it feels like that’s where the burden appropriately belongs.”

IWPR research indicates another significant factor in wage inequity is the motherhood penalty. Until more companies enact policies that encourage both parents to take leave and share the burden of caregiving, Anderson says, that’s going to be a difficult thing to tackle. There is no evidence that simply by being a mother, you underperform in the workplace; but it’s the burden of caregiving that often leads to women—more often than men—pulling out of the workplace.

“It may take more female political representation to change the federal policies that will remove the motherhood penalty,” Anderson suggests. “In many cases, families are just making logical choices. The spouse making less money will be the one to take time out of the workforce when caregiving is needed—sometimes for both aging parents and children. This potentially leads to missed promotions and lost skills, and it snowballs.” This situation tends to disproportionally hurt women.

“We need to join the rest of the civilized world and have paid family leave and paid days off.”

Another wage gap remedy is a policy passed recently by a handful of states that forbids employers from asking recruits about their previous salary. By making it illegal to obtain this information, Anderson says, it ensures that when someone walks in the door, the playing field is level. “If you must reveal your previous salary every time you move to the next job, you may be undervalued your entire career,” she says. “Employers need to say, ‘This work is worth X amount of dollars,’ and erase the factors that may unconsciously introduce bias.” This is a policy that individual corporations could adopt now instead of waiting for the state or federal government to mandate it.

Take up a Hammer

There are other areas of workplace inequity that can only be chipped away at over the long term, as women take advantage of existing opportunities to empower themselves. Anderson points to middle school initiatives showing kids the income potential of different career tracks, pipeline programs that help young women move into business and other professional roles, and expose middle school and high school students to apprenticeships and nontraditional jobs.

There are plenty of tools in the box, it’s just that more need to be used, and used more frequently. And the responsibility rests both with employers and with individuals.

According to the IWPR, at the current rate of change, it will be 2059 before women in the United States earn as much as men. Enlightened companies must pull more tools out of the toolbox to build a shorter bridge to equal pay, men must also champion equity, and women must pick up their own tools and help construct the bridge.

Forté programs build confidence, career-readiness and connectivity aimed at shrinking the pay gap. Watch our Empowered to Negotiate on demand webinar for free during the month of April to mark Equal Pay Day. Please consider making a gift to Forté to support equal pay.

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