Viewpoint: HR Must Lead the Way to Gender Pay Equity

March is women's history month, so let's make the pay gap history.

By Patricia M. Buhler, SHRM-SCP February 27, 2017
Viewpoint: HR Must Lead the Way to Gender Pay Equity

Patricia M. Buhler, SHRM-SCP​

We’ve all heard the stat: More than 50 years after the enactment of the Equal Pay Act, women still earn an average of 76 cents for every $1 their male counterparts make. If that doesn’t seem like much of a difference, consider this: According to the American Association of University Women, working women will be shortchanged to the tune of $430,480 over the course of their careers.

Or consider this: According to a report released in December 2016 by PayScale Inc., which provides compensation resources and software, the gender pay gap can be largely pegged to a lack of promotion opportunities for women. The study found that men are 85 percent more likely than women to be vice presidents or C-suite executives by midcareer and 171 percent more likely to hold those positions late in their careers. Indeed, when pay data were controlled to compare the compensation between men and women in similar roles, the difference narrowed to a mere 2.4 percent.

What does all this mean? It indicates that we are in the midst of a self-perpetuating cycle: With few women making it into top positions, there are few sponsors and role models to support other women—which results in a dearth of female leaders.

Over the past 20 years, the overall gender pay gap has remained largely static. Either we have lost interest in achieving parity or we have mistakenly assumed the problem has been "fixed"—which couldn’t be further from reality.

There is a wealth of evidence that organizations with more women in leadership positions reap an array of benefits, including improved financial performance in terms of the bottom line and return on investment, improved social responsibility, better group decision-making (including less groupthink), and even fewer layoffs in tough financial times.

Moreover, there is certainly no shortage of qualified women. In the mid-1990s, women began earning more college and professional degrees than men—a trend that has continued through today. Yet women remain underrepresented at work, with the most severe disparity at the senior level. In fact, females make up less than 20 percent of top executives, according to the latest McKinsey and Co. data.

Clearly, this problem won’t be resolved unless we take deliberate, coordinated action—and HR professionals should be the ones to do it. After all, we are uniquely positioned to influence all aspects of the employee life cycle, from who gets hired to how workers are compensated and managed. Here are specific steps we can take to kick-start efforts to achieve gender pay parity:

Assess personal and organizational attitudes. While 70 percent of men report that they consider the issue of workplace gender diversity important, only 12 percent believe that women actually have fewer opportunities than men, according to McKinsey and Co.

Knowing the attitudes of both male and female employees provides a starting point toward building awareness. This should begin at the top. If there is significant gender bias in the senior ranks, it will trickle down and ultimately lock women out of critical leadership positions.

After all these years, studies show that both men and women use traditionally "male" adjectives to describe strong leaders, including "assertive," "autonomous" and "independent." Yet women who exhibit these same characteristics are often viewed unfavorably as "unlikeable" or "aggressive." Moreover, the traits that women have been socialized to focus on—for example, being caring and collaborative—aren’t highly valued in leaders, either. This creates an unfortunate Catch-22 that makes it difficult for women to find any place at the top.

It’s time to take an objective look in the mirror, at both the personal and organizational levels. We all need to get a read on our biases, many of which we aren’t even conscious we have. Using implicit association tests such as the free tool available on Harvard’s website can help us measure the extent of our unconscious biases so we can begin to change them.

Even seemingly helpful colleagues can unwittingly hinder women’s development. For example, managers or co-workers who shield female employees from tough assignments in misguided attempts to make things easier for them may be thwarting their advancement. With no stretch assignments, women are robbed of the chance to take risks and accept the challenges critical to leadership preparation and promotions.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Pay Equity]

Review the hiring process. In reviewing job descriptions, check to ensure that the language is gender-neutral. Studies have shown that gender-biased language in job listings can predict whether a male or female is more likely to be hired. Ads with masculine-biased language (such as "active," "analytical" and "leader") are found to be less appealing to women.

Feminine-focused terms are more social in nature, such as "cooperative," "supportive" and "dependable." If you seek to hire more women in traditionally male-dominated positions, a good place to start is by changing the language of the job listings. Tech tools such as Textio can point to more neutral terminology.

Also consider adding the phrase "salary negotiable" to your ads. Research indicates that men are more likely than women to negotiate their salaries when they accept new jobs. However, when women are given explicit "permission" to initiate compensation discussions, they are just as likely as men to do so, studies show.

It is a business concern, and the failure of U.S. companies to make progress could ultimately affect our country’s global competitiveness.

Leaders at Google recently learned a similar lesson when they implemented a program allowing employees to self-nominate for internal promotions. Fewer women participated in the process until they were actively encouraged to do so.

Also look into the possibility of conducting "blind" assessments, in which candidates’ skills are gauged in the absence of names and other identifying information such as age and ethnicity. There are a variety of tech platforms that help companies do this, including GapJumpers, TalentSky, Blendoor and Triplebyte.

Develop sponsorship opportunities for women. In the past few years, there has been a big push toward using sponsorship programs to increase the number of women in the leadership pipeline. Sponsors are similar to mentors but play a more active role in the careers of the people they are helping. For example, sponsors offer not only career advice but also introductions to critical contacts and stretch assignment opportunities. Sponsorship programs benefit women by providing access to those in senior positions and opening the door to more advancement opportunities.

Increase transparency of performance requirements. Humans have a natural tendency to surround themselves with those who are similar to them. Unfortunately, if men in senior positions are more inclined to advance other men, the underrepresentation of women gets exacerbated. Using objective, predetermined, job-related standards of performance can help combat this tendency.

Measure performance. Accountability matters, too. As the old maxim states, "what gets measured gets managed." That’s why some tech companies, including Facebook, Microsoft and Google, have voluntarily made the numbers of women at various levels within their workforce publicly known and have set goals and timelines around improving them.

Lawmakers in several European countries have even legislated targets for the percentage of women who serve on corporate boards. Norway set an impressive objective of 40 percent female board participation. With the law in effect since 2006, female representation on boards has increased dramatically, making it almost a nonissue in that country.

Perhaps the greatest roadblock to achieving gender pay parity has been the way it has been mislabeled as a "women’s issue." It is a business concern, and the failure of U.S. companies to make progress could ultimately affect our country’s global competitiveness. Talking about the gender pay gap won’t close it. Doing that requires action—and who better than HR to take the lead?

Patricia M. Buhler, SHRM-SCP, is a business professor specializing in HR at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Del., and is the owner of Buhler Business Consultants.

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