#EqualPayDay: Are employers ready to oblige?

On Equal Pay Day, women are encouraged to press for equal compensation. But real change will require buy-in from employers, advocates say.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Holly Ainslie, a barista at a Starbucks store in Seattle writes on a cup for an iced drink March 18. April 14 marks Equal Pay Day, a day to raise awareness about the wage gape women workers face.

It’s Equal Pay Day again, the day that represents how far into the year women have to work to earn the equivalent of men’s wages from the year before. Equal Pay Day was first launched in 1996 as a public awareness event to demonstrate the gap between men and women’s wages. And while the pay gap has shrunk since 1996, it is still a reality for most working women, economists say.

Women on average are paid only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the gap is even wider for women of color, according to the United States Department of Labor. Every year, Equal Pay Day is commemorated as a plethora of pundits offer women and legislatures advice on how to close the wage gap. Be more assertive and ask for more money, or enact legislation that mandates equal pay for equal work, are just two of the most common solutions proposed. But increasingly, more analysts are suggesting that a fundamental shift in working culture needs to be made if society is going to ensure that women are fairly compensated.

“Passing laws that make it harder for workplaces to discriminate based on sex is important. But gender discrimination accounts for only 25 to 40 percent of the pay gap, depending on which labor economists you consult.... What could make a big difference would be if workplaces reconsidered how they compensate their employees – and were more transparent about it,” wrote Vivien Labaton in an editorial for The Washington Post.

Research has consistently shown that women are just as ambitious and career driven as men. However, a survey published last year by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company demonstrated that while female executives are ambitious and confident in their ability to manage, they are far less confident about their companies’ willingness to support their rise to success.

Meanwhile, studies show that their fears may not be unfounded. Inflexible hours, a lack of paid maternity leave, an emphasis on overtime and face-time with the boss, and a lack of affordable childcare, can make it difficult for the 80 percent of women who will become mothers by the age of 44 to balance their family life with their jobs, economists and equal pay advocates say.

Moreover, working mothers often pay a “motherhood penalty” that researchers say stems from a, perhaps subconscious, belief that mothers are less dedicated to their jobs and less efficient. This means that working mothers make 7 to 14 percent less than women without children, and often find it more difficult to get back into the workforce after taking time off. Meanwhile, men's incomes tend to increase as they have more children. Part of this phenomenon could be because mothers choose to take time off or reduce their hours after having a baby. But critics point out that women often make these choices because their employers don’t compensate them enough to cover the exorbitant price of childcare, or provide them with the flexibility they need.

Furthermore, while asking for a raise may seem like an easy way to address the wage gap, women who ask for more money can face repercussions that men do not, experts say. According to Joan Williams, a law professor and co-author of the book "What Works for Women At Work," women who ask for a raise are often disliked and viewed as aggressive. Men, on the other hand, are viewed as assertive.

“Women are still expected to fulfill prescriptions of feminine niceness,” a group of Harvard researchers theorized. 

Meanwhile, a recent study by Payscale demonstrated that asking for a raise often doesn’t come with results for women. Of the 30,000 workers surveyed who asked for a raise, female M.B.A. graduates were denied 21 percent of the time while their male counterparts were told no only 10 percent of the time, the Atlantic reported.

In order to address these issues, companies need to change the way they think about and treat working women, equality activists say. Instead of rewarding workers for making themselves available around the clock, they should value high-quality work and productivity, and provide employees with the flexibility they need to balance work and family obligations.

Research by Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom has shown that flexible working hours and other policies that support working mothers actually encourage employees to be more productive, thus improving the bottom line for employers.

On Equal Pay Day, many will also point out that equal wages for men and women are good for the economy. According to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women will lose around $435,000 over the course of a 40-year career due to the wage gap. That is money that would otherwise go toward purchasing goods and services that could create employment and boost the economy.

But in order to make these economic benefits a reality, employers need to take a lead role, observers say.  As journalist Ann Friedman wrote for New York magazine, asking women to do more to close the wage gap “doesn’t ask much of employers, and it doesn’t really address the bigger issue.”

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