When I listen to different views about gender pay discrimination, I often flash back to an informative experience in the early days of my career. A man was brought in to do the job I had just been promoted from – at three times my pay. “That’s not fair,” I thought at the time. My immediate reaction turned out to be wrong, and I learned a valuable lesson about seeing the bigger picture when it comes to pay gaps. It also taught me that addressing pay inequities is more of an art than a science, and “one size fits all” government mandates aren’t the solution.
It turned out the pay differential I experienced was actually based on the skills and work involved, not gender. While I’d operated the same equipment in my previous position, my replacement was operating, programming, and physically repairing the equipment. I totally got that and went on to move up in that company based on my own professional strengths, far surpassing that gentleman.
The experience helped me to understand that there is a bigger picture when it comes to salary determinations, and it is often a mistake to assume that gender is driving these decisions. Many other factors contribute to pay differentials. One that rings most true for me is the trade-off for flexibility, as I spent 12 years out of the workforce while raising my children. I understood this decision would have significant ramifications for my career (changing my promotional trajectory), and I worked hard to make up for the gap through my performance after re-entering the workforce.
Both of these experiences have helped me to see a bigger picture, which has served me well throughout my career.
This is not to say that pay gaps based on gender do not exist. I understand that these pay gaps exist in some fields and industries, and it is imperative that improper pay disparities be addressed and corrected. But I am not convinced that gender-based gaps are as large or widespread as many contend, and it’s certainly not a problem that government can or should address with formulas and mandates.
Federal, state and local governments should recognize that employers know their workforces best and should be able to manage them without unnecessary intrusion. When government lets employers use compensation and benefits to compete for talent, good companies get the best employees and, in turn, make the most profit. The need to compete for top talent is by far the strongest incentive for more employers to do the right thing when it comes to pay equity.
Managing pay is a skill that takes a lot more finesse, thoughtfulness, awareness and judgment than just following a federal guideline. Employees don’t have any trouble understanding the reasoning behind pay differences when they are connected to valid business considerations.
When employers and employees can see the bigger picture, we create better workplaces and a better world, and that’s what we all want.