I talked with Hillary Clinton, Megan Rapinoe & other trailblazers about equal pay: This time, it was different

By Tracy Sturdivant, Make It Work Campaign (@miwcampaign)

Every day, women are forced to make tough choices that impact how they and their families get by, but here’s one they never make: women do not choose to be paid less than men. The hugely successful U.S. Women’s National Soccer team provides a timely example. They do not choose to get paid less than half of what their not-so-stellar male counterparts make. They are paid less simply because they are women.

This past April, I took the stage with Megan Rapinoe, Olympic Gold medalist and World Cup champion, to talk frankly about equal pay. We joined other advocates on the cutting-edge of this issue — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gap Foundation president and Gap Inc.’s SVP of global sustainability Dan Henkle, Glassdoor co-founder and CEO Robert Hohman, and executive director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute Lori Nishiura Mackenzie – for a roundtable discussion hosted by Glassdoor.

It was exactly the type of conversation we need to have if we’re going to close the wage gap. Here’s why it was different:

For so long, mainstream discussions about equal pay have centered on women’s choices. Did she negotiate enough? Did she have to temporarily leave the workforce to care for a family member? Did she put in fewer hours at work because she has kids? We’ve all heard those questions before, and they’re the wrong ones.

Those questions stem from the challenging decisions women face on a daily basis about how to juggle work and family. Those decisions are not caused by women’s choices, but rather America’s lack of workplace policies that support women and families. From our dismal paid family leave to the outrageous cost of child care, these struggles combine to create a “perfect storm” of economic instability. And the pay gap is a huge contributor to that effect.

On average, women employed full time in the United States lose a combined total of nearly $500 billion every year due to the wage gap. $500 billion. Women of color are hit the hardest. A Black woman will lose close to $900,000 over the course of her career because of the pay gap; for a Latina, it’s over $1 million. So here’s the right question: if the pay gap’s impact is so persistent and widespread, isn’t it time we stop talking about individuals’ choices and instead enact a collective solution? The answer is yes, and we know what it is: it’s not rocket science; it’s transparency.

Since Make It Work’s launch, we’ve been loudly and passionately advocating for pay transparency as the best way to close the wage gap. Why? Because right now, women don’t even know when they’re being paid less. Unless employers start analyzing and making wage data available by gender and race, the problem won’t get fixed.

Sitting on that stage, I reflected on what a major moment it was. In a discussion among leading equal pay advocates from across sectors, transparency came up over and over again as the best strategy to eradicate the wage gap.

I was encouraged to hear Dan Henkle talk about Gap undertaking a thorough analysis of its employees’ wages to understand and address any pay discrepancies. Glassdoor’s Robert Hohman said that most CEOs he works with don’t think they have a gender pay problem, but it’s because they haven’t looked at the data. As we’ve seen from companies like Salesforce, when employers do take the initiative to analyze their data, they’re empowered to eradicate any disparities. And it pays off: 60% of workers say they wouldn’t apply for a job if they knew the company had a wage gap.

But here’s the catch: women’s pay equity shouldn’t depend on employers being good actors. We need better policies in place to fix the problem for everyone. Until employers make wage data available by gender and race, our current laws aren’t enforceable. Make it Work’s transparency proposal would build on President Obama’s recent EEOC Action, creating a public database of salary data broken out by race and gender, while simultaneously protecting employee’s personal information. That data would be available by employer, not just industry, meaning workers would be better positioned to hold their employers accountable.

We also need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that employees who talk about their pay at work are protected from employer retaliation. But efforts for increased transparency and protections have been repeatedly blocked in Congress.

Which raises, perhaps, the most important question of them all: as Secretary Clinton put it, if you’re scared about workers having more pay data, you should ask yourself: why?

Participating in Glassdoor’s discussion, it was evident to me that transparency is not just one solution to our equal pay problem: it is the solution. How we deal with the wage gap is a choice, and it’s a clear one.

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