Pay Equity Debate-Truth or Fiction

The pay equity debate has been on everyone’s mind recently. As women, we want to know that we are being paid the same as the man doing the same job at the next desk over. There are reports that say it is not an issue and reports that say it is an issue. The bottom line is . . . it’s complicated. There are multiple factors to consider, so it is not cut and dry.


A lot of the pay equity debate is being attributed to choices. I agree that choices do have an impact. Let’s dig in on that.

High percentages of women make the choice to take on roles that pay less. Women often choose to be teachers and social workers, which pay less than accountants or engineers. Why would they do that? In a study commissioned by Microsoft, they found that young girls lose interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) around age 15 and never come back to it. They did not have exact reasons for why this occurred. Role models, hands-on exercises, and mentors are great ways to keep girls interested, according to the study.

So why do women choose to stay away from STEM? Most people don’t stay where they aren’t welcome and where they are being told they don’t belong. There are many examples for girls that STEM is for boys. In 2014, Mattel created a Barbie, I can be a computer engineer doll. Great, right? Only issue was she needed the help of her male counterparts to do more than design the program. They also had to help her when she gets a virus on her computer.

A recent article in HBR by Athena Vongalis-Macrow shared this on why women leave STEM:

There are a number of reasons these women are dropping out of the workforce. Sexism in STEM fields takes many forms, including derogatory comments, stereotyping and harassment, opportunity gaps, and  biases about what women should look like.

I know what some women are thinking when they see this . . . pull up your big girl panties and get to work. I consider myself a pretty resilient person. Yet, I wouldn’t be able to keep my head up if I heard these things happening around me. The recent story from Uber raised awareness that sexism in many forms is still an issue. I have heard more than once that being a woman in tech is isolating at times. It is also the best job when you create a tool/app/game that you know people will love.

At the end of the day, women are making choices. Wouldn’t it be great if a woman could choose her career solely based on where her passion lies?


Another choice is the decision to have children. If a woman has a child, on average she will take 12 weeks out of the year she gives birth. 3 months. A quarter. This is a lifetime at a lot of companies these days. Think of how much changes in a quarter at your company. HR tells managers that the time away for parental leave should not count when evaluating performance. The review should be based on what they accomplished in the year. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t just look at outcomes. They ding the woman for being gone for three months. This turns into promotions being lost and merit increases being lower. This widens the gap in pay for women.

The question to consider now is this. Companies are normalizing parental leave and more men are taking time away. Should we expect a similar ding to start showing up in their pay?


There is also the perception that having children means that women work less and that men are more stable. Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has studied the parenthood pay gap for 15 years. She discusses this perception in this NY Times article. The ramifications include, the man needing higher pay to support his family. The inverse being that the woman loses pay because she has to leave at 3:30PM to pick up her kids from school. This might be in spite of her working nights and weekends to complete her work.

Another, more obvious bias, is if you are a single mom. Your schedule is even less flexible. To get a promotion, you are expected to take a 2nd or 3rd shift. This won’t work for a mom who needs to be home to care for her kids in the evenings. She is limited in her advancement opportunities. Now you might say that the same would apply to a single man. My response: in cases of divorce, women on average get custody of children 75% of the time.

This limits women’s pay and career growth in both circumstances listed above. Again, a lack of equity.

Pay History.

When looking for a new job, people share their current salary with recruiters. The woman has been making $100k and a man is making $120k in their previous roles. Both are hired at the same level and expected to deliver the same outcomes. The recruiter may even give them both an increase from their prior job. This still puts the woman at a disadvantage from the start. She will be trying to catch up through her whole tenure at the company. This is another way that pay inequality exists.

You may think this is an exception. No. Massachusetts recently passed a law that restricts employers from asking candidates their salary history. The idea being that you pay for the role, period. They did this because they wanted to create pay equity from the start, so women are not always playing catch up.

Personal Experience.

My friend shared a story with me the other day about a conversation she had with another woman. They were talking about pay, sexual harassment, and other issues for women in tech. The woman was sharing that she had never had any issues at work along any of these lines. The woman said that she couldn’t believe these things happened. To this my friend responded, “I have never been raped but I don’t have to experience it to know it has happened to others.” Wow! This might be a bit rough but the point is important.

Next Steps.

Many companies are working hard to fix pay inequities. They have pledged to share their pay data every year for transparency. They have committed to doing a better job on pay equity and promotion reviews. It is not a quick fix. You can’t flip a switch and increase women’s pay without impacting the bottom line. We all need to work to make it better for ourselves and the next generation.

Do we need to keep having the pay equity debate? Unfortunately, yes. But I have high hopes that we are working to solve it for everyone.