The gender pay gap: a tale as old as time

by | Apr 29, 2020

The gender pay gap: a tale as old as time

I was 26 years old when I discovered I was paid a whopping $15,000 per year less than my male colleagues. Faced with this fact I innocently assumed there had been a mistake made rather than what turned out to be pure bias and gender discrimination. 

The year was 1996. I was a young mother of two toddlers and held a technology support role that involved being on call 24×7. Working for a software company I was part of a small team dedicated to a massive two year project for a single customer. I was also a very rare female in my specialisation – I met two other women in my field that decade, yes two!

My team were all equally technically qualified holding the same certifications, all had pretty much the same number of years work experience, and all ‘worked the same ridiculous hours. We had different strengths and worked really well together achieving some leading-edge stuff for our time to the extent we fielded technical queries from around the world.

$15,000 might not seem like a big deal and to be fair I can’t even recall exactly what I was earning but I think I was earning roughly $45,000 and my colleagues $60,000 per year (I confirmed this with one of them as I wrote this). So a 30% salary increase over my own! 

To provide some context on where our salaries sat for the time, according to data from the Household Employment Survey – used in this study of the gender pay gap indicates as at March 1997:

  • Mean hourly earnings men: $15.37 – which would translate to a salary of ~ $32,011
  • Mean hourly earnings women: $13.45 – which would translate to a salary of ~ $27,976

What did my employer do? 

I was very lucky to have such a wonderfully supportive team, some of whom are still my best friends today – I know in some part because we went through this together. Our company of ~120 people was growing and was predominantly male, the other women were, for the most part, in administration functions such as HR, Quality, Administration, Reception etc. With a few in customer facing roles like Service Desk and Project Management – but not many. Culturally the organisation valued their “work hard, play hard” culture so was full of swinging dicks with egos to prove. 

My team and I took the disparity to our manager, he told them it was none of their business and met with me separately to give me the litany of reasons I was paid less. 

  • I was a working mother so my career to date had a broken timeline (broken by 6 months on 2 occasions, so true); 
  • The men had families to support as primary earners;
  • The men could be more flexible with their on call time (which was pure bull);

The best one was that I was not 100% chargeable as I took time out to speak at conferences and help other teams with their projects. This got under my skin. I was used as promotional material “look at us we have a female Database Administrator”, not to mention I was in demand as a speaker which reflected really positively on my employer with our customers! Equally the act of being pulled off onto different things was at my mananger and other managers’ instruction – so their call not mine. 

Next step was to go to HR. Madeline Albright once said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women” and that statement applies to our HR manager at the time. Functionally her role was to protect the company in employment matters, however it seems that extended to reinforcing stereotypes and bias in the name of saving money too (I will write another blog on women who don’t help other women very soon). 

So we escalated unsuccessfully to the CEO who defered to the HR manager, before finally speaking to one of the Founders and Directors in the corridor one day.  My recollection of that conversation was him apologising on the spot and next thing I knew my pay moved to be in parity with my colleagues. As a Founder and Director myself now I understand the financial pressures and factors involved in balancing a cultural intention of fairness over bottom line. Everyone in that chain has different KPIs to meet but at root cause this was a biased decision. 

When we all left this company 18 months later we were earning about $72,000 one of them reminded me recently – all of us in the team. 

So what, this happened 25 years ago!

Sadly pay equity isn’t a given for women. Women who do the same job, have the same qualifications and perform to the same standard as their male colleagues are still earning less. 

The gender pay gap in Aotearoa is still yet to close. If we consider my previous role to be categorised as Professional then the gap sits at 16.7% as of June 2019 according to our official statistics:

“In the June 2019 quarter, the occupation groups with the smallest gaps were clerical and administrative workers (7.1 percent) and labourers (9.7 percent). The occupation groups with the largest gaps were professionals (16.7) and technicians and trade workers (16.2 percent).”

We are not alone in New Zealand with regards to pay parity for women, globally however the issues are more complex and extend to representation of women in the workforce. On the pay gap specifically this headline from the World Economic Forum summarises the situation well

“A woman would have to be born in the year 2255 to get equal pay at work”. The report summarises that “Worldwide, the average woman’s annual income is $11,500, versus $21,500 for a man.”

So yes! This is a live issue and still valid today. 

Concerned about your own pay? What can you do?

It’s generally not acceptable in our society to discuss pay, especially openly with your colleagues, I would suggest ask them once (and only once) and if they are open to answering then great, if not don’t strain the relationship – your issue is with your employer not your colleagues. 

It is acceptable to discuss pay with your manager / employer. Ask them directly whether you are paid the same or within 5% of your immediate colleagues, this is an easier question to answer as gives them a range. 

If they don’t want to answer that question, be open with them and tell them you are concerned about your own pay parity and intend to escalate this concern, then escalate. 

Don’t ever ask for the pay rates of individuals, only whether you have pay parity – or near pay parity – with your  colleagues. 

If you find out you are subject to a pay gap then ask your employer directly to bring your salary to the same level as your colleagues. 

There might be valid reasons – your experience, qualifications, or performance for instance. Ask them for the pathway to pay parity, what you can do to improve your own position. If none of these are in play and you are just paid less, again escalate, take this up through your organisation and see what appetite they have for pay disparity in their organisation.

If you do get into a discussion with your employer I suggest you arm yourself with appropriate research. Like any negotiation, bring as much information and evidence as you can to the table. If your colleagues are comfortable opening up to you with what they earn, this is the most critical piece of evidence, otherwise market rate analysis, gender pay gap analysis and your own performance / qualifications / experience report are all useful input to the discussion. 

If you are unsuccessful on this quest you are the only person who can make a judgement call whether this is the employer for you, or if it’s time to leave. If you choose to leave then remember to ask these questions in salary negotiations for your new role. 

If you are successful – Fantastic! Use this to ask your employer whether they will introduce a pay parity policy and review the salaries of all women in the organisation.

I won’t say good luck as this shouldn’t be a luck issue, pay parity is a right, there are no valid excuses.

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