Studies still show that working women are paid about 80 cents for every dollar men are paid. These studies suggest that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to holding higher-paying jobs and that men are generally on more accelerated career paths.
This article offers some practical suggestions for actions that human resources professionals can take in their companies to address and hopefully improve this gender inequality.
1. Have fair and equitable procedures for addressing sexual harassment/discrimination
Your written policies must make clear that harassment and discrimination is unacceptable within your company. Leaders must set the tone by publicly stating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and they must model appropriate behavior. Discipline, including termination, for inappropriate behavior must be consistently applied across all levels of the company.
Your employee handbooks and policies should include a comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy that expresses the company’s commitment to providing a working environment free of harassment and discrimination. The policy should inform employees how they can report concerns or complaints of harassment and discrimination, including more than one option to whom employees can report concerns.
Additionally, the policy should inform employees of the type of investigation that will take place in response to complaints. All investigations must be fair and equitable, and you should follow the same procedure regardless of the source or type of complaint received.
Once the investigation is completed, both the employee reporting the concern and employee about whom the concern was raised should be informed that the investigation has concluded. If it is determined that there was a policy violation, discipline should be commensurate with the circumstances, up to and including termination.
Even if no policy violation was found, the company should consider whether any remedial steps can be taken. You must be careful to avoid adversely impacting the employee who raised the concern or employee who participated in the investigation.
2. Conduct training on promoting an inclusive workplace
Human Resources teams should be provided with detailed training and ensure that they know how to fully and fairly investigate claims — even if the claims involve senior leaders. This training is essential because proper investigations are key to building trust within the company.
All employees must be trained on how to create and maintain a positive, respectful work environment and ensure that everyone knows what to do if they see or hear something that is troubling. Several states, including New York and California, require such training.
You should review guidance published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on effective harassment training. That guidance states that harassment training is most effective if it is: championed by senior leaders; repeated and reinforced regularly; provided to employees at every level and company location; provided in a clear, easy to understand style and format; provided in languages commonly used by employees; tailored to the specific workplace and workforce; conducted by qualified, live, interactive trainers, or, if live training is not feasible, designed to include active engagement by participants; and is routinely evaluated by participants and revised as necessary.
3. Consider unconscious bias training
To combat unconscious bias, you should consider offering or requiring training on unconscious bias to all employees, especially managers and human resource professionals. Through training, employees can start identifying when they are making assumptions based on biases and stereotypes and remove these considerations from workplace decisions. You should also establish clear, understandable, actionable, and transparent metrics around recruitment, retention, advancement, and pay so these decisions are based upon merit and are not influenced by implicit bias.
4. Build diversity and inclusion into your culture
Building a culture of diversity and inclusion needs to start from the top, with a clear statement of the leadership’s commitment to a culture of inclusion and recognition. A diverse and inclusive workplace benefits employees individually and the company as a whole.
You can assist in cultivating an inclusive environment by promoting the creation of multicultural and women-focused employee resource groups that include men to foster increased engagement and networking opportunities. Additionally, compensation for key leaders can be linked to taking certain diversity and inclusion actions.
5. Review your leave policies
Another area for employers to be mindful about is the impact of leave on pay and advancement. Women often take more and longer leaves of absence from work than men, primarily to take care of children and family members. These leaves of absence have been shown to correlate to a loss of earning power.
To minimize this penalty and promote opportunities for women who have family obligations, employers should consider flexible work policies that support a work-life balance for caregivers and all employees throughout the ebbs and flows of their careers. You can conduct periodic analyses to determine whether pay and position correlate with contributions to the company to avoid women being penalized for leave time.
6. Ensure compliance with changing pay equity laws
You should review company policies and handbooks to make sure they are consistent with applicable state laws and local ordinances. Remove any policies and statements that prohibit employees from discussing compensation as most states now require transparency.
Many states and localities also prohibit employers from seeking salary history from job applicants and/or using salary history to make compensation decisions. Therefore, you should update applications and other hiring documents to remove requests for salary history and instruct those conducting interviews not to ask questions about salary history during the interview process.
7. Conduct a pay equity audit
You should consider conducting a pay equity audit to identify any potentially unlawful pay disparities and remedy them before a claim is brought forward. Through an audit, you would gather relevant pay data, identify comparable jobs, and calculate whether women are paid equally in comparison to men who perform substantially similar work.
If you identify any inequities, you should determine whether differences in pay are justified and, if not, remediate the unjustified pay differentials. After an audit is completed, you can adjust pay practices going forward. You should attempt to analyze the reasons why there was an unjustified pay disparity and take steps to remedy practices and policies that were the root cause of the pay disparities.
A pay audit also provides you an opportunity to identify and correct weaknesses in the company’s systems to protect against claims of disparity going forward. As a general rule, you should conduct an audit every few years. Not only is this a best practice, but certain states, including Massachusetts and Oregon, provide a safe harbor or affirmative defense where employers conducted pay audits and took steps to eliminate gender-based compensation differentials. Outside counsel can play an important role in the pay equity audit by ensuring that the audit is conducted on a privileged basis.
8. Be flexible
To address the wage “penalty” often experienced by women who find themselves in caregiver roles, you should consider policies that allow for flexibility. These policies may include allowing employees to work from home or to have reduced hours at different stages of an employee’s life and career.
One way employers can foster flexibility is to measure career progress by business results and performance, not physical presence in the workplace. You should encourage male and female employees in leadership positions to take advantage of flexible work policies as a way of assuring all employees that your company supports those policies.
No easy, quick fix solution exists for closing the gender pay gaps that persist in our society. As a human resources professional, you have the opportunity and ability to initiate changes within your company so that female employees are provided with equal opportunities for advancement and compensated equally for performing the same work. These improvements should help your company either become or maintain its status as an employer of choice.