Equal Pay Day: Are Women Surging or Stalling?

Are We Leaning In Enough to Solve the Gender Wage Gap Problem?

“I just got so excited about the job offer, that I didn’t know what to say!”

That’s essentially what a young, female co-worker told me in 2010 when I asked her if she negotiated her salary immediately after receiving her first full time job offer.

In many ways, it’s hard to blame her -- or her male counterparts -- both young and old. When you have an offer in your grasp, when you can’t wait to move on to the next challenge, and when you’re worried about losing the job to another candidate, simply accepting an offer without negotiating is incredibly easy.

And yet, just a few weeks later, another young co-worker – this one male – was presented his first real-world job offer. The difference was, he did ask for more money … and became the highest paid entry-level employee in the history of the company.

It’s now 5 years later, and April 14, 2015 is Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day when women's earnings finally catch up to men's from the previous year.

Are women getting better at asking for more? Has progress been made in closing the wage gap? Would that same female employee have acted the same way today as she did in 2010?

Let’s start with the bad news:

But let’s look at the positive side:

  • Awareness is increasing. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s landmark book, Lean In, was released in March 2013. It went on to become Amazon’s second-best selling book that year, and has sold more than 2.25 million copies to date. Perhaps even more important, women have created more than 21,000 “Lean In Circles” in 97 countries, going beyond the book and building a community around asking for more. According to their site, 75% of members credit their Circle with a positive change in their life.
  • When I speak to women’s groups, I make it a point to highlight books written by women, for women, such as Knowing Your Value, Women Don’t Ask, and Pushback. Women also cite examples such as Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Womenomics, and Bossypants by Tina Fey as eye-opening stories of the workplace.
  • There’s a huge movement to get women more interested in STEM jobs. In fact, some research argues that there isn’t a wage gap (No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men): “The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When all these relevant factors are taken into consideration, the wage gap narrows to about five cents.” For example, in looking at college majors, early childhood educators (97% female) can expect to earn around $36,000, while petroleum engineering grads (87% male) can earn $120,000.
  • Groups such as Women Who Code (2011), Girls Who Code (2012), and Bella Minds (2013) are all groups founded in the last few years dedicated to changing the environment for women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields.
  • The workplace is drastically changing. Companies such as Buffer, SumAll, and Whole Foods (internally), have shifted to a model of transparency with salaries. For example at Buffer, every employee salary is not only based on a pre-determined formula, but is made public for anyone to see. Go ahead and view the formula and each person’s name and salary on their public Google Document.
  • Workforce demographics are also shifting. In the next 5 years, millennials will make up half the workforce. In a sharing economy and an age where compensation data from Salary.com and countless blogs are just a search away on your phone, it’s hard to keep information secret. Hoping to save money by deliberately paying a female employee less than a male employee? In a world based on authenticity, companies risk a public firestorm.
  • Lastly, the way we work is changing constantly. Job-hopping is no longer seen as a negative, so that each leap to a new company every 18 months brings more chances to test the market, build new skills, and negotiate a higher paycheck. At the same time, it’s not always about the money. Yes, a fair salary is important, but current workers are also looking for flexibility, a collaborative team environment, and the chance to make a difference in the world.

How long it will take to get to equal pay remains to be seen. A headline-grabbing story this spring was Reddit CEO Ellen Pao announcing that there would be no negotiation during hiring. She stated, “Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate.”

On one hand, the intent is clearly there. By eliminating negotiation, her goal is to even the playing field so that men and women are treated equally.

On the other side of the coin, critics contend that this is simply treating the symptom, not the problem. If the underlying issue is that women don’t negotiate as effectively as men, is the solution simply eliminating negotiation altogether?

Or would a better path be to educate women (and men!) on the skills of negotiating and earning their worth, while also educating hiring managers about gender bias?

While the issue will be ever-evolving, we can all look forward to the day where every job-seeker exclaims, “I’m so excited about the job offer, and I negotiated an extra $10,000!”