The Payday Puzzle

iStock_000002838991XSmall_1_.jpgby Jane Carruthers (London)

It’s the elephant in the room. You can have equal opportunity programs, gender equality task forces, women’s action groups and all the promises of equal pay for equal work enshrined in your Human Resources manuals, but none of it matters a jot if you don’t have clarity on whether you really are paid the same as your male counterparts.

Gender equality has long been the rallying cry for women seeking to reach their full potential in the workplace. What is sad is that in the struggle to achieve the roles and responsibilities they deserve, the crucial issue of pay is often sidelined.

The Glass Hammer has written long and passionately about professional women deserving equal pay for equal work: it isn’t a story that will go away any time soon. In Britain, nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act of 1970, women working full time across the UK still earn on average 17% less an hour than men working full time. It’s even worse in London, workplace for many of our UK readers – full time women will suffer a pay gap of 22.3%.

The part-time story is even worse. Women in part-time work in the UK are paid on average 36% less than part-time men, the figure rising to a staggering 45% in London.

The data from the US is just as discouraging, with women in full-time work earning a meagre 80 cents on the dollar compared to men in comparable positions.

The question is: why do we put up with it?

Fundamentally different approaches to asking for money is clearly an issue: we are told that a man will ask for a raise on the off-chance he might get it, whereas a woman expects that her efforts will be noticed – and rewarded – and will seldom go cap in hand to her manager demanding a pay hike.

In the UK, the situation is worsened by the attitude that women suing their employers for gender discrimination can be perceived as bounty hunters by the court system and the press. The fact that the courts are largely staffed (if not stuffed) with older white males is obviously not much help.

Anecdotally, I have come across several women who were discriminated against in terms of their pay. One particularly shocking case involved a woman at a global bulge-bracket bank who was forced to take legal action against her employers. She requested a Peer Remuneration Review and discovered that in spite of being top-ranked in her sector in external surveys, she was earning around less than half of the pay some of her male colleagues were taking home. Yes, you read that right – Less.Than.Half. And this was a bank busily professing its love of gender equality long and loud in its Employee Handbook.

While any employee can legitimately request a peer remuneration review, the reality is that you would be perceived as a troublemaker if you made one just to establish the pay ground rules. They’re usually deployed after the employment relationship has already broken down, trust is in tatters and you have to prove that you’ve been underpaid in order to proceed to court.

And employers can throw obstacles in your way if you do demand clarity on your pay – fudging the issue by comparators using who are junior to you, downgrading any successes you may have had or using questionable data such as call-rates to quantify your results (or lack thereof). You may also find that the much-loved (by HR) 360 Appraisal is invoked, and all of a sudden colleagues and managers have ‘issues’ with your performance. You will almost certainly be friendless in the office, as peers rush to disassociate themselves from you.

While all of this sounds too ‘doom and gloom’ for comfort, there are measures you can take to protect yourself and ensure that you are being fairly rewarded for your efforts. Here are some suggestions:

  • Manage your manager. Make sure that she or he is aware of your worth to the team. Toot that horn and make sure that your successes are noted throughout the year. Leaving it to your appraisal meeting is asking for trouble.
  • Build up your confidence. Quite a few women are uncomfortable talking about money to their managers. But you have to be brave about the conversation if your manager is to realise that you are nobody’s fool on pay issues. It’s the creaking gate that gets the oil…
  • Keep your eyes and ears open. While many employers insist that pay is kept secret, nearly all employees have a rough idea of what their colleagues earn. If pay discussions at your workplace are conducted in an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, consider why that may be so.
  • Use your employee representatives. Get them to ask the Equal Pay question repeatedly on your behalf at each and every employment forum. It’s their job to put management on the pay spot if they feel that answers are being fudged. There will be payroll data they can request, and they must do so.
  • Shop around. It’s always worth talking to recruiters and head-hunters, if only to make sure you are being paid the market rate. If you aren’t, you have a ready contact to help you remedy the situation.
  • Don’t fret about it. Being underpaid can be very demoralising. Be aware that if you aren’t being properly paid, it isn’t necessarily personal – some managers will always pinch –your – pennies if they think they can get away with it. It’s not about your worth, it’s about their lack of management ability. Keep a cool head when you ask for a fair deal.

International Women’s Day 2009 on Sunday, March 8th put a valuable spotlight on the many issues that affect women globally, from domestic violence to cancer risks, AIDS and maternal mortality. While we might not be able to solve all women’s problems immediately, getting it right on pay would be a good place to start.