Blind interviews? Genderless CVs? Tackling ‘non-promotable’ roles? Ananish Chaudhuri shares some ideas on how we might narrow the gender wage gap.

Women, on average, get paid less than men. This is a fact and it is well-documented. The OECD defines this gender wage gap as the difference between median earnings for males and females relative to the median earnings for males.

The average gender wage gap for all OECD countries is 13.5 percent. At the most unequal end we have Korea (difference of 33 percent), followed by Japan (24 percent), Israel (23 percent) and then Finland, Mexico, USA and Canada (around 18 to 19 percent). Belgium, Greece, Costa Rica, Denmark, Norway and Italy have greater parity with a gap around 4 and 5 percent. New Zealand comes in at 6.5 percent.

Contrary to the perception some people have, it is usually not the case that women are paid less than men for the same job. Instead, part of the overall wage gap is explained by occupational choice; the fact that men and women often end up in different professions.

For instance, proportionally more women tend to choose “caring” occupations such as teaching or nursing. Equally, the presence of a larger number of women in those professions, and conversely the relative lack of women in some other professions, makes it easier for women to enter the former than the latter.  If there are salary differentials in those occupations, that will also show up as a gender gap in pay.  

Part of the gap is also due to the fact that, within most organisations, as one moves up the hierarchy one finds fewer women. But yet another part is that the playing field is far from level and this is not just a matter of women being more assertive in the work-place. Unconscious bias is widespread and while employers may not wish or intend to discriminate against women, they can often be unaware of the discrimination.

The messages feeding this unconscious bias can be very subtle. For instance, if you go around offices and boardrooms, you will often notice framed photos of past leaders. Without exception these will tend to men. Unfortunately, this sends subliminal messages to women (and men) about the ‘correct’ attributes of leaders. Similarly, employers expect men to negotiate hard but the same tactics adopted by women are considered overly aggressive.

Many organisations and institutions administer multiple-choice tests to job applicants where wrong answers are penalised. It is often the case that if one can eliminate some options then one is better off on average by guessing the correct answer. But women tend to be more risk averse than men and hence, are often unwilling to guess. This leaves them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis men. So tests where wrong answers are penalised will be gender biased. Not penalising wrong answers is gender neutral since it does not favour either gender.

An example of research that confirmed gender bias was carried out by US economists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse in 2000 when the Boston Symphony Orchestra moved to “blind” auditions. Applicants performed behind a screen and, even allowing for some statistical errors in the data, many more female musicians were hired.  

So maybe, as far as practicable, we need to establish policies for hiring staff that mimic the ‘blind’ auditions. This could include making sure there is no explicit elicitation of gender-relevant information in job applications; in particular, not asking for photos, which is still quite common in large parts of the world. 

Organisations must establish a clear set of criteria for hiring and make sure that everyone is being measured against those. For example, when interviewing job candidates, the exact same questions must be asked of all candidates in the exact same order, and then all applications should be evaluated simultaneously rather than sequentially. This prevents a moving of the goal-posts where the attributes of the person we like more (maybe because of our unconscious bias) is given more weight, thereby flipping the priorities we had established earlier. 

Companies also need to have pay transparency. This does not mean they have to make public what every single employee is earning. But they should make salary information for various positions public so that someone who is underpaid can easily discover this fact. 

One of the first pieces of legislation Barack Obama pushed through after becoming US President in 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, guaranteeing pay parity for genders. Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear for many years without realising that even new male hires in similar positions were being paid more than her. When she finally filed suit, her claim was denied since the statute of limitations on when such an action can be brought had passed. The court ruled that she should have brought the suit when the discrimination first happened. The problem was that she had no idea that this was happening. 

In many organisations women end up doing proportionately more non-promotable jobs; roles that help the organisation but do not contribute directly to the woman’s career advancement. Such roles include acting as mentors for more junior colleagues or serving on committees dealing with matters ranging from recruitment, compensation and equity. This problem is often exacerbated by the fact that most organisations have proportionately fewer women but gender equity dictates female representation on all sorts of committees and/or activities. Hence, women end up carrying a disproportionate load. Organisations need to be mindful of this disparity in service roles and need to attach appropriate weights to such activities in deciding on career progression.

None of these will solve the problem overnight but should go a long way towards combating the unconscious bias inherent in our institutions.

Leave a comment