How to Tell Women They're Being Paid Unfairly

7 years ago

One of the first things Ed Macias did when he became provost at Washington University in St. Louis in 2009 was commission an analysis of gender-pay equity. Macias, a 39-year employee, is not a showy type, but he realized that when he announced that he was looking into pay inequity, he was simultaneously announcing that he was going to publicly release the results. Executives, legal officers and human resources staff can learn from how Macias navigated this land-mined terrain.

The committee assembled by Macias ran the university’s staff and faculty earnings through dozens of  statistical models. They wrung out every conceivable variable, and found that women were paid less in every school in the university, from a nearly-there 0.7% gap in the School of Engineering & Applied Science (under one model) to a much more frightening 7% shortfall (according to another model) at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts.

The study, the Report to the Faculty Senate Council on Gender Pay Equity on Danforth Campus, which was released in May, discovered that within the university, “schools with higher proportion of women faculty do not necessarily show smaller gender differences in pay.” In this regard, female academics have plenty of company. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research recently reported the same thing for careers like administrative workers, teachers, nurses and cashiers. Those occupations are dominated by women, but men are still paid more.

“These are very complicated problems,” Macias says. “One example: who’s hired? In the university, there are peer hiring committees. If you don’t get everybody involved, you’ll just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.”

Here is what Macias did that other employers can emulate:

1. Make the entire process transparent. Macias told everyone that he was opening the study, then he told everyone the results. No drama, just a plainly written report that lays it all out. The results were presented in a meeting of the faculty. And to “look everyone in the eye,” even if virtually, Macias made a video of himself talking through the results. He posted it at his department’s website and included the link in an email that went to all staff and faculty.

2. Allow time for people to read, react and respond. Dozens of WU employees responded. Some immediately turned the report to their own advantage, pressing for pay adjustments for themselves and for colleagues. “There is a tendency to personalize everything,” Macias says. “Of course, we’re all underpaid.”  He wrote individual responses to every employee inquiry.

3. Coach middle managers and executives in private. Macias is now embarking on behind-the-scenes discussions with department and staff leaders. Each got a report about the pay-equity gap in his or her own departments. Now, Macias is helping managers analyze the results so they can find the right solutions for their departments’ cultures and recruiting and retention priorities. “It’s across all departments, which means it’s not one decisionmaker causing this,” Macias says. “If it was, it would be easy to fix.”

4. Don’t hide behind lawyers. I’ve heard time and again from human resource staffers that conducting internal pay-equity analysis will only arm plaintiff’s lawyers with evidence for lawsuits. Macias isn’t having any of that. If someone wants to use the report to sue the university, “take a number and stand in line line,” he told me. (Yes, he really said that. Then he quickly added, “Of course, I don’t want that to happen.” ) Remember: Without evidence for change, potential legal liabilities just pile up.

5. Use the dismay of disappointing findings to focus energy for change. Macias is counting on the goodwill of the faculty and staff to figure out together how to correct the pay inequities. “When you do admit it, it’s hard. As an institution, we didn’t do what we intended to do,” Macias says. “If we are people of good intent, why not use that to fix the problem?”

This post was first published at on July 12, 2010.

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