Career Path

The (Continued) Push for Equal Pay

More women are back in the workforce. Will this help them reach pay parity?

For years, economists and pay professionals have pointed to the fact that there are fewer women in the workforce, which has contributed to the gender pay gap. Men tend to earn more because there are more of them working, so their chances of getting into higher-paying roles were better. 

But now, women are going back to work in droves. The share of women in the labor pool rose to 75.8% in the last quarter of 2018—the highest since 2010—up from a recent low of 73.8% three years earlier, according to federal data. In comparison, the share of men in the workforce rose less than a percentage point to 89% over the same time period.

Compensation is an imprecise science, and lots of ingredients go into the stew.

Certainly, these numbers are coming out at an interesting time (April 2 is Equal Pay Day in the United States), and experts say the change could help close the gap. But it’s also not a bird in hand, because many of the women who are returning to the workforce have been on the sidelines for years, if not decades. With salaries tied to experience, some companies could view returning workforce women as a great value play. The bigger problem, then, is perception, because organizations can base compensation on experience, hardship involved in doing the job, and other factors that are largely subjective, says Ben Frost, Korn Ferry’s vice president and general manager of Reward Products.

From the average professional’s view, the discussion surrounding pay equality can seem daunting. If you aren’t in a decision-making role about compensation, what can you do to try to make things better? Below, a few steps to take—for everyone’s sake.

Find out about your company’s pay parity plans.

The first thing you can do is ask what your firm is doing to address the issue. “If five people, 10 people are asking how this stuff works, eventually HR will wake up to the fact that they need to figure out ways to communicate on the topic,” says Tom McMullen, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a leader in the firm’s Rewards and Benefits Solutions practice.

Some companies, such as Microsoft and Google, have become more transparent about what workers make. But the reality is most companies remain opaque on the particulars of pay. That, however, is likely to change. Millennials, who comprise the largest generation in the workforce, “have a much more transparent DNA than baby boomers,” McMullen says. “It’s a losing battle for HR if they try to keep things the way they are.”

Research market rates.

If you find yourself in a situation where you think you may be underpaid, start speaking to people in your same position to find out what the going rate is in your area. While there are websites that can provide some data on market rates, career pros say it’s better to speak with people in the industry and in your region. A nurse in the Bay Area, for example, makes 55% more than the average national salary for registered nurses.

Understand your company’s salary philosophy.

As you research job rates, it’s also important to get a read on how your company views compensation. Some employers pay lower base salaries but offer high bonuses. Others view flexible vacation policies or work arrangements for a better work-life balance as part of the compensation package. “The money you make is a function of an employer’s pay practice, but also previous employers’ pay practices,” McMullen says. “It’s an imprecise science and lots of ingredients go into the stew. 

Don’t play defense.

If you do find yourself frustrated with your pay—or your company’s stance on equal pay—complaining constantly even if you’re doing a stellar job isn’t going to get you anywhere. Remember that more money won’t come on demand, and asking for it takes more than one conversation. Instead, keep having periodic check-ins with your boss or hiring manager to get a sense of how things are going and focus on your long game. And remember: at the end of the day, you need to be comfortable and confident with the terms of your employment arrangement—salary being one of many factors. If you aren’t, it may be time to find something else.

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