Today is Equal Pay Day — and advocates for workplace gender parity say women still have a long way before catching up with their male counterparts.
It takes the average American woman nearly three and a half months longer to earn what the average American man earns in a year, according to the American Association of University Women — and the time horizons for black and Latina women in the workforce are even longer.
In general, women both start their careers with more student loan debt, and earn less than men at the start of their careers, said Kim Churches, the organization’s CEO. “We’re starting out at a disadvantage, financially,” she said.
This gap is exacerbated by time out of the office, data from PayScale found: Companies that hire people reentering the workforce after a period of unemployment offer less pay, especially if the absence was for a prolonged period. Workers returning after a year or more of unemployment are offered, on average, 7 percent less than job-switchers.
That penalty is borne disproportionately by women, who make up the bulk of long-term caregiving-related absences from the workplace. Among people returning to the workforce after more than a year off, PayScale found that about a third of women reported the absence was due to childcare; only 4 percent of men returning after an equally long absence said the same.
Where you live and what type of job you have both play a role, as well.
When controlled for job type, experience level and other relevant factors, PayScale’s data shows that men and women have near parity in science, engineering and technology. AAUW data found that New York and California are the closest to achieving pay parity, while women in Louisiana and Utah only make 70 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
Churches said there are a number of reasons why some industries, and some parts of the country, are closer to achieving pay parity than others. Some of it has to do with state employment laws, local norms and and policies; some of it has to do with the dominant industries in a particular area.
“A huge part of the problem is the secrecy level,” she said. “There are still employers that have punitive pay-secrecy policies,” where a worker can be disciplined or even dismissed for discussing their earnings with colleagues.
“When you have more information, the economy works more efficiently, but we see information, because it’s valuable, is not evenly distributed… which is why EPI thinks strengthening collective bargaining rights is important,” said Jessica Schieder, a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute.
“That’s why you tend to see smaller wage gaps in unionized workplaces,” she said.
HR experts advise that employees who suspect that there might be a gender-based pay disparity at their workplace should tread carefully. Churches recommended doing some initial research about your company’s HR and compensation policies generally: Do they do a compensation audit, and is this conducted internally or by an independent party? Do they require job applicants to disclose salary history? Are there rules against workers discussing pay amongst themselves?
"Some employers still have punitive pay-secrecy policies, where a worker can be disciplined or even dismissed for discussing their earnings with colleagues."
Rather than framing your inquiry as a gender-bias situation, be equipped with facts and figures that make an argument for why your value to the organization merits a bigger paycheck, said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “You want to play offense,” she said, and avoid language that could be interpreted as an accusation or ultimatum.
“The difficult part here is it can go from calm to boiling pretty quickly. It’s a very emotional topic,” Haefner said.
Find a pay range — a better metric than a single number, according to experts — and make sure you’re comparing apples to apples by looking at job titles and descriptions, education or credentials required, years of experience and other benefits (for instance, if you work for a small company that offers lower pay but invests more in training and professional development, keep that in mind.) Sites where workers can self-report pay as well as job listings and the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics can be helpful here, Haefner said.
Churches also said it’s important not to discount the value of your own personal network. Anecdotal feedback with co-workers or peers at industry events can provide valuable insight.
“It would be worth checking out the ranges across those different job titles and seeing what the current job descriptions are… that can help determine maybe where you fit best,” said Alison Sullivan, career trends expert for Glassdoor. “Do your research and know your value.”
“Studies have shown that men are promoted based on potential, and women are promoted based on performance,” said Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at PayScale, suggesting that a similar dynamic might be reflected in salary offers.
And don’t be afraid to haggle. “Negotiating your salary is a perfectly normal part of the employment process,” Sullivan said.
“Studies have shown that men are promoted based on potential, and women are promoted based on performance."
However, women who negotiate pay — especially at higher levels of an organization — still face bias, Frank said. “Women pay a social cost for initiating negotiations on their own behalf,” she said, pointing out that studies have shown both men and women exhibit negative reactions to women negotiating for higher pay. “There’s some work we have to do as a society to ensure that women asking for what they’re worth feels commonplace.”
Churches pointed out that a growing number of households today are headed by women — a demographic shift which she said makes equal pay more than just a women’s issue. “This is about economic security for families,” she said.