The Best Disinfectant

The Sure-Fire Way to Ensure Gender Pay Equity

Laws won’t do it, and Congress will never agree anyway. Only one pressure tactic will get to gender pay equity: transparency.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Last week, while American politicians celebrated International Women’s Day by boycotting and tweeting, Icelandic politicians actually did something that will significantly improve the lives of women. Iceland announced it will become the first country in the world to require public and private companies with 25 employees or more to prove they are providing equal pay to employees regardless of gender.

According to the Associated Press, the new policy is part of the country’s effort to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022. Icelandic leaders deserve credit for being more ambitious than other countries, including America, in their efforts to tackle gender inequality. But here’s hoping their plan will inspire our country and others not only to follow Iceland’s lead but to go even further. Because I’ve become convinced that the only way to achieve equal pay across gender and racial lines is for all of us to demand total transparency regarding who is earning what, and why.

For years, the debate around the gender pay gap, at least in America, has been stuck in a sort of circular battle of theories reminiscent of “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” Feminist leaders tend to blame institutional sexism for the fact that women still earn about 79 cents for every dollar men earn. (The debate around proving that figure is also a fascinating one and worth a read.) Conservatives, and plenty of employers, blame women, or at least women’s life choices, such as choosing lower paying professions (teaching vs. construction work, for instance) or the choice to become a mother (or more pointedly, an involved mother).

The thinking—backed up by data and anecdotal evidence—is that while men are usually more comfortable with sacrificing family time if that’s what’s required to keep climbing the ladder, women eventually decide that missing the milestones of their children’s lives is not worth the extra 21 cents and pull back on their careers. (As I have written before, my own mother has said she made a similar calculation. She attended every terrible dance recital and mediocre tennis match I was in.)

A 2010 study seemed poised to end the debate for good. It found that single women in their twenties in major cities actually out-earn their male counterparts. These findings indicated that there may not be a gender pay gap after all, but a parenthood pay gap—a parenthood pay gap that women bear the brunt of.

Days ago, research published by the University of Bath found that gender is an indicator of how much an employee is likely to believe they deserve to earn, with women underestimating their earning potential, while men overestimate theirs. This reinforced previous research findings that indicate women are less effective negotiators than men, often asking for lower pay at the outset of their careers, which results in them earning less than men throughout their working lives.

But all of this research overlooks a key detail. Studies show that when women do act as assertive negotiators, they are penalized for it. Aggressive negotiation has a much more negative impact on how superiors and coworkers view them than it does for men. If that weren’t depressing enough, another study recently found that men have become even more aggressive in their negotiations with women since President Trump’s election.

So, if research proves that there are a variety of factors that determine who earns what and why, then how do we ever definitively prove instances of discrimination based on gender and race (black and Latina women earn significantly less than the 79 cents on the dollar figure) and end such discrimination once and for all? The only answer is that companies should publish the wages and salaries of all employees, no exceptions. Doing so would be a win-win for both sides of the political spectrum. Feminists who claim that women are being shortchanged for reasons other than personal choices would finally have solid data with which to evaluate the pay of female employees compared to their counterparts. Conservatives who claim women are not being shortchanged at all but being compensated in accordance with their choices would similarly have data to work with to help defend their position.

My suspicion is that in the case of both sides, they will find the truth to be a lot more complicated than their political slogans make it out to be. The truth is there are employers who do discriminate based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.—in some cases with malice and intent, but in other cases because they are simply oblivious to the fact that they are discriminating at all. For instance an employer may think, “Tim has a family to support so he really needs a raise,” without considering the fact that Sheila may be a single mother with a family to support too, or that Sheila actually earned the raise and Tim didn’t—regardless of whether he is the breadwinner of his family. But there are also people who may appear to be victims of discrimination who are really victims of circumstance, or their own choices. For instance, two people are doing the exact same job but the man is earning more. On the surface we immediately assume discrimination. But then we find out that the woman left the workforce for five years to be a full-time parent. While away the man accrued raises every year.

President Obama is probably one of the best high-profile examples of this. He made closing the gender pay gap a policy focus, particularly in his final years in office. There was just one problem. The White House had its own pay gap problem with female White House employees earning, on average, less than men. The White House issued the kind of defense that would make the average conservative proud, saying, “At the White House, we have equal pay for equal work. Men and women in equivalent roles earn equivalent salaries, and over half of our departments are run by women.” In other words, our gender pay gap has to do with plenty of factors, but discrimination isn’t one of them. But part of the way the White House was able to prove this is because White House salaries are publicly available.

To his credit, the president tried to make this transparency the norm. In his final year in office he proposed a policy that would require large companies to report pay data. The caveat was that the data would become public only if the EEOC sensed a pattern of discrimination and a lawsuit resulted. While business groups condemned the policy, the real criticism should have been the fact that it didn’t go far enough. After all, what if only one department of say, 10 employees in a company of 20,000 showed signs of pay inequity? That might not matter much to the EEOC for a major lawsuit but it would probably matter a lot to the handful of employees affected.

Which is why the only real solution to eradicating pay inequity is this: Companies should be pressured—not by the president, not by the government, but by all of us—to publish their pay data. If a company has absolutely nothing to hide, this shouldn’t be a problem. An easy way to start is to flood the social media and customer service accounts of major companies with a simple request: “Dear X, I have been a loyal customer but gender and racial equality is important to me. Will you please make ALL of your employee salaries public so I know it’s important to you too?” But if they decline or drag their feet, then that should be a red flag to every woman, racial minority, and anyone who cares about equality—not just about working there but patronizing such a business.

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If you believe the saying knowledge equals power, then ultimately the culture of silence around pay is just as damaging to those of us from underrepresented groups as institutional discrimination. So perhaps for next International Women’s Day we should pressure companies to do more than post words of support on Twitter to prove they actually care about equality. Instead they should tweet a link to the salary data of all of their employees.

Or they should save us all time by tweeting they don’t really care about equality at all.