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Pay Equity at the intersection points: Permission, Policy and Performance


Pay Equity at the intersection points: Permission, Policy and Performance

  • 3/7/2019
  • Employment, Future of work, Job search, Working longer, Lifelong learning, Career pivot / transitions, Community, Culture & Society, Multigenerational workforce, Ageism

By Amy W. Loomis, Ph.D.

Decades have passed since the 1963 Equal Pay Act. And yet . . . women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men worldwide. The World Economic Forum puts the discrepancy at 63% and estimated in 2017 that it would take 217 years to close the pay gap.

So what’s the hold up?! What can we do about these blockers?

The answers and power dynamics are complex and there are many. Race, class, religion and geography play key roles in explaining the persistent global pay gaps for women.

That said, if we look at the intersections of social, political and personal challenges, we can better understand and take on the macro and micro barriers to pay inequity.

Why must we ask permission?

No surprise that globally, we face societal norms that equate equal pay for women as a privilege — as something requiring permission rather than an entitled right.

This happens in (at least) two ways: First, the majority of low paying jobs are held by women and especially women of color. For African-American women, their share of the fastest-growing low-wage jobs is 2.6 times their share of the overall workforce. Whether by cultural or economic circumstance, the preponderance of women in these roles becomes accepted social convention.

Second, gender discrimination for equal work continues at higher level jobs. Look at the number of women and women of color who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Of the CEOs who lead the companies that make up the 2018 Fortune 500 list, just 24 are women (down 25% from the year before).

Beyond obvious lack of promotions, women are confronted by social conventions that make it awkward to ask for pay equity. The adage that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission is far more fraught with risk when the very act of asking could backfire. The worst response to the request is not “no” but “who do you think you are?”

What comes across as bold for men, can be read as pushy or demanding for women in the same circumstances. This challenge falls at the intersection of social permission and perceptions of women’s performance on the job.

What about policies to address societal and social norms?

Despite decades of documented pay inequality, many employers fall short in conducting broad-scale efforts to remedy the gender gap. Recent European efforts to publish salaries publicly and force policy solutions are a step in the right direction — albeit a first step in a very long journey.

The #metoo movement has ignited new resolve to address the pay gap at a policy level around the world. In the United States, new laws bring greater transparency to wages, prohibit asking prospects about prior salaries and enforce reporting of gender wage inequality.

In 2017, the European Commission proposed a two-year plan for closing the gender pay gap, including better application of equal pay principles, gender segregation across occupations and management levels. The plan addresses the child care penalty and establishes means to expose pay inequality.

Recently, a number of public and privately held companies have also launched policy initiatives to remedy pay inequity across gender lines — companies like Starbucks, Apple, Salesforce, Intel and Adobe.

Even with policies in place, we must pay close attention to how job roles and performance measures are defined. Policies can counter social blockers that offer men greater permission to ask for raises than women, for example. What they can’t always do is address the ways in which social bias creeps into the very language we use to create job descriptions and performance measures.

Perceived performance and the confidence gap

A recent Atlantic magazine piece, written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, notes that half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. And yet, data also shows that men continue to get promoted faster and be paid more. So, while governmental and corporate policies aimed at addressing pay inequality are growing, there is more to the pay inequality equation.

Kay and Shipman ask: if girls and women consistently out-perform their male classmates in school and they are responsible for strong work performance, why are so few women promoted to senior leadership roles? The answer, in part, lies with perceptions of women’s performance: our own self-confidence and its impact on how our performance is viewed by others.

The confidence gap between men and women is well documented and has real economic impact. Women consistently undervalue their capabilities and qualifications for jobs and promotions, whereas men tend to overestimate their performance and professional value.

The definition of what counts as strong leadership behavior can itself be biased. We need to be aware of key performance skills and what action compromise the perception of our performance.

So what’s the solution?

No surprise, there isn’t a single solution to these challenges. But that doesn’t mean we wait for these things to sort themselves out over the next 200+ years. By looking at the intersection points of social, policy and personal challenges though, we can pinpoint specific areas for action.

We can’t rely on policy implementation alone to address pay inequity. There will always be subtle ways in which performance measures will inhibit women who have the skills and lack belief in their own competency. We must address the foundational cultural biases that devalue women’s work, undermine their sense of self-worth and compromise the effectiveness of policy implementation — from day one.

We can’t rely on shifting social and societal conventions, though they are welcome. We can use them as drivers of policy implementation that will start to reshape workforce norms and increasingly offer role models to inspire current and future generations of women.

Finally, we can’t underestimate the power of self-confidence in changing the futures of women, one day, one life, one network at a time. Where will it come from? From a world in which social acceptance and promotion of our equality is increasingly normal; from a world in which policy frameworks for equality are pervasive. If we work at these intersection points we can collectively speed up the change to pay equity and cumulatively see the exponential growth of our actions over time.

This post was originally posted on Mar 7, 2019 on Medium.

Amy Loomis, Ph.D. is a strategic communications executive focused on employee and client engagement, digital learning and content strategy. She is an active volunteer with




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