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The Gender Pay Gap: Are Professional Women Being Paid Less for the Same Job?

Posted By: John Sweney on December 16, 2022

A businesswoman and a businessman face off on a track with a soccer field in the background.

When we talk about the gender pay gap it’s important to put aside the political rhetoric and thoroughly examine the data that leads to a factual discussion. Worldwide, compensation for the same job or work seems to favor men, but in the United States, the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires that employers pay men and women the same wages for equal work.

That said, gender discrimination still exists in the professional workplace. Being overlooked for promotions, being given unfavorable assignments, receiving less coaching from supervisors, and being paid less for the same job are all illegal under U.S. discrimination laws, including, for the final element in the list, the Equal Pay Act. According to Pew Research, about one in four women say they have been paid less money for the same job. With anti-discrimination laws on the books, those instances are less frequent—especially with companies that are publicly traded—than at any time in history when compensation of top executives must be reported. However, some privately held businesses have the flexibility to skillfully hide illegal compensation packages.

In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at the truth and fiction surrounding the gender pay gap.

Gender or Other Factors?

It may be easy to simply point out that there is gender discrimination when it comes to the pay gap between men and women. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 42% of working women had experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with 22% of men. This included pay inequality for the same job.

However, other factors can contribute to the discrepancy in pay, including:

  • Motherhood—When a woman becomes a mother, it can interrupt her career and impact her earning potential in the long term. This is because women tend to take more time off than do men after the birth of a child or an adoption.
  • Type of work—According to Pew Research, women have made great strides in acquiring higher-paying managerial and professional positions that were once almost exclusively assigned to men. However, women still fill much of the lower-paying occupations in the overall workforce, which is a huge contributor to their lower overall pay.
  • Qualifications, seniority, experience, responsibility, and other skills—The Equal Pay Act makes exceptions if your employer can prove that a male counterpart is being paid more because he has seniority, has more responsibility, produces more work, has a particular set of specialized skills or education, manages more people, or brings in more clients. In many cases, these factors can put someone in high demand in their industry, causing their employer to incentivize them staying through either bonuses or a raise in salary.

For example, in the case of Jennifer Freyd v. University of Oregon, Professor Freyd filed a lawsuit against the University of Oregon for paying her less than four of her male psychology department counterparts. The lawsuit was dismissed because the court said that all four of the men shouldered more varied and complex duties than those of Professor Freyd. In addition, the four male professors had all received retention raises because they had received handsome offers from other schools. In order to retain them, the university had to raise their pay. Contrarily, Professor Freyd never sought a retention raise, meaning she had never received similar offers.

So while gender may be a factor in pay gaps, it’s not the only factor in all cases where there seems to be discrimination.

What Do I Do If I Think I’m Experiencing Pay Discrimination?

Two men and two women dressed in business attire collaborating over a tablet

As we discussed earlier, gender-based discrimination does exist. Companies have been doing it for years even though it’s illegal. If you are a woman and feel that you are receiving less pay for the same job being done by your male counterparts, you do have recourse. But here are some things you should keep in mind before assuming that you are being discriminated against:

  1. Know the law and what its exceptions are.Not everything that looks like discrimination is discrimination. Read the Equal Pay Act and understand what constitutes bias and what doesn’t before you rush to judgment.
  2. How do you know whether your male counterparts are making more than you for the same job?You can ask them, but they are under no obligation to tell you because, in all honesty, it’s none of you business.
  3. While he may have the same title, compared to your position, does he produce more, manage more, or require a specialized skill to handle his job requirements?We mentioned that some positions may require a specific background or degree, like in science. So even though you may have the same title, his may require a niche background that’s in high demand within your industry.
  4. Can you approach your boss?The next step if you decide to move forward is to have a conversation with your boss. Use dialogue like “I’m concerned that we may be violating the Equal Pay Act because of the pay disparity between Steve and me. I want to better understand why it’s different.” Using terms like “we” and “us” sets up a more collaborative rather than adversarial conversation. However, remember not to disclose how you know—it’s not relevant to your conversation.
  5. Contact Human Resources.If the conversation with your boss goes nowhere, reach out to your HR department about the issue. Be sure to get a timeline of when they will get back to you. HR should know the legal ramifications of violating the Equal Pay Act, so they should be responsive to your inquiry.
  6. Take legal recourse.If HR doesn’t get back to you or they fail to explain the pay discrepancy adequately, you can speak to a lawyer to discuss your options. However, you can also file a complaint on your own with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will investigate the complaint.

What If It Backfires?

Let’s say you do approach your boss and discover that you’re actually making MORE than many of the men who hold the same position within the company as you. Now what? What if the logical (not punitive) and “fair” remedy to the pay gap is for your employer to REDUCE your pay to their level? They actually agree with you! Now what do you do?

The better approach is not to look at others, but to look at yourself. Instead of going to your boss, there is another remedy for your perception that your pay is lower compared to your peers. Recognize the opportunity to explore ways to EARN a raise or promotion. How can you redefine your position? How can YOU add more value to your organization?

Buy putting in the extra effort, you make yourself more valuable as an employee within your current organization. Your initiative can result in the promotion or pay increase you’re looking for. If it fails to achieve the advancement you think it merits, you’ve at least made yourself more marketable elsewhere. As an employee, it’s important to understand your true value in the marketplace and develop a career strategy to better yourself without using any peer as a standard for comparison.

What’s The Opportunity for Employers?

If you’re an employer, when you’re confronted with a pay discrimination issue, it could be an opportunity to help a talented professional grow. Ask the employee to develop a plan that outlines a path to get them to a pay increase or promotion. It may be eye-opening for the employee to discover that they aren’t delivering as much value as they thought they were. But you see their potential and are willing to show them the way to deliver the value that will fulfill that potential. By coaching them up, you can turn a potential uncomfortable situation into a win-win scenario.

Recommended Read: Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

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If you’re not happy with your career, check out our openings to see whether there is one that’s the perfect fit for you. Submit your application and we’ll keep it on file and contact you if there’s interest. But don’t worry if we don’t reach out, keep following up with us and the right opportunity may come along.