HR Critical to Tackling Workplace Gender Bias, Promoting Equal Pay

March 25, 2016

We’ve all heard the statistics: A woman in today’s workplace earns 79 cents to the dollar of what a man earns, on average. This is across the board in nearly every state, including all ages, educational backgrounds and occupations. If the woman is black or Latina, she earns even less (63 cents and 54 cents, respectively).

Think tanks, presidential candidates and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) all cite similar statistics on inequity at work. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires that men and women in the same workplace receive equal pay for equal work, but in 2016 inequalities persist.

Women lag behind men in key leadership positions as well, although research from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who run leadership training and development programs, shows that women outscore men in 12 of 15 core leadership competencies, and a study from Grant Thornton found that companies with women on their boards tend to outperform boards that consist of men only. A McKinsey Global Institute report found that $12 trillion could be added to the global gross domestic product by 2025 if women achieved their full economic potential. So what’s holding women back?

The ‘Like Me’ Bias

Claire Bissot, managing director of CBIZ Inc.’s HR services practice, has a hunch why gender inequality still exists. She calls it the “like me” bias.

“When we think of promotions and our star players, we look at players ‘like me,’ ” Bissot explained. “Even as a female, I catch myself doing it. Sometimes women can be overlooked simply because we may not be able to talk their golf game or about March Madness, or have the same interests. In general terms, ‘like me’ makes you want to personally invest in someone more. I think that’s a big contributor, and it’s a hidden contributor that people don’t realize.” Bissot said she is learning to play golf as a way to connect with talent outside of the workplace, as informal work discussions often take place on the greens.

Mike Bergelson, co-founder and CEO of Everwise, a talent development firm, also sees gender bias, but said it comes from both men and women.

“Research shows that managers of both genders still favor men over equally qualified women when it comes to things like hiring, promotion, compensation and performance evaluation,” he said. “So unless companies develop programs that disrupt these biases and perceptions, we’ll continue to see male dominance in leadership.”

Carol Sankar, a business and leadership consultant and author of The Confidence Factor for Women in Business (I.L. Press, 2015), has a different spin on why women lag behind men in the workplace. Sankar, who started a four-year study in 2010 to get at the root causes of the pay gap, said it boils down to confidence.

“At the end of the study, the women never asked for more due to the fear of asking, underestimating their qualifications and fear of termination,” she said.

Some organizations, such as the Pew Research Center, maintain the 79 percent pay disparity figures are skewed and don’t fully take into account that it is more often women who exit the workforce to have and raise children, and that they tend to go after lower-paying jobs that offer greater flexibility in terms of benefits. Pew estimated that women earn roughly 84 cents to the dollar compared to men.

Pew estimates that the gap is closing even more so for Millennials, citing research that puts young women at 93 cents to a Millennial man’s dollar. Its research calculates the hourly rate and includes part-time workers while other research—including AAUW, the National Women’s Law Center, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Committee on Pay Equity—calculates weekly and annual pay for full-time employees. AAUW says that the figure improves slightly to 81 percent when calculating the difference in weekly earnings, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A spring 2016 AAUW report cited data from the American Community Survey, which showed that in 2014 the annual pay disparity was smallest in Washington, D.C., where women earned 90 cents to every dollar men earned; and the largest in Louisiana, where woman took home just 65 cents to every dollar men earned.

Amazon announced March 23 that it has nearly solved its pay equity problem: According to its study of its workforce, in 2015 women’s compensation was 99.9 percent of men’s in equivalent jobs (women make up 39 percent of the workforce).

However, few in business argue that a pay gap doesn’t exist. They just debate how large that gap is.

According to Mercer’s When Women Thrive Quick Pulse Survey, released March 24, cultural and societal norms are the No. 1 reason women are held back from advancing in the workplace. Conducted March 1-16, in connection with Women’s History Month, the survey also found that 35 percent of responding companies said their organization was not on track to achieve gender equity; 33 percent of respondents said theirs was. 

Barry Coleman, former HR manager at The Washington Post who now runs his own HR training consultancy, bcole group, LLC, said the problem is often ingrained in the organizational culture to value women and their skill sets as less than a man’s.

“It’s complex because that particular attitude can stick around a long time and as women go in, they go through a sort of hazing process,” Coleman said. “I think HR’s hand in this is important at every level, around recruitment, when they’re onboarding, with performance management, career management, all the way up to promotions.

“HR needs to be a part of each step in the employee life cycle. I think HR needs to have the authentic conversations with company leaders around the numbers. They need to say ‘This is what they look like. They are upside down. What are you going to do about it?’ and then help the leaders get there.”

Bissot acknowledged that the topic is an uncomfortable one for senior leaders.

“It’s a scary topic. But don’t ignore that it exists. Have the strength to make some adjustments and to show why it can be important,” she urged.

Coleman agreed.

“HR has had a seat at the table for a very long time, but we’re not vocal. We’re not speaking up when we’re at the table, or if we are speaking up, we’re not being heard,” Coleman said. “I think a company needs a leader who’s an advocate and who gets this. If you don’t, you get [the same results that] you’ve always gotten.”

Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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