Can Sisters Keep Doin’ It For Themselves?

On August 31st, we had an ironically named event in Australia: Equal Pay Day. I say ironically named, because in the last year, the gender pay gap in Australia went backwards.  Women doing the same work as men, are earning 14.2% less income every hour. We must now work more than 8 weeks a year extra, just to take home the same annual pay as a man who is doing the same job.  

How is this still possible? How did it go backwards?

I have always believed it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, but we’re in a wind tunnel here. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. I am also angry at myself. I wish I had said and done more when I had the chances. I picked my battles, but not as many as I should have. And perhaps some of my colleagues feel the same way.

The percentage of female managers in Human Resources, People and Culture and Diversity and Inclusion is quite high. It is undoubtedly higher than 50%. What are we doing?  Are we enabling this problem? Because we’re not fixing it. The stats tell us clearly that we’re not.  

I have been in roles where I had a ring side seat watching men routinely help each other to bonuses and special, even secretive, payments. ‘He shares the love’ is an expression sometimes used for the boys’ club.  Did I call this out every time I saw it? Did I challenge it forcefully enough? I did not. Sometimes you get tired. You get run over by gravy trains if you stand on the tracks.

It has always amazed me just how quickly men will jump in to rescue other men they feel are not being paid enough or whip up some sort of panicky pay increase argument over a threatened departure. I have rarely seen a female manager do this or seen any manager go to the defence of a woman who was concerned about her pay. 

I’ve also watched many men argue successfully for more money on their way in the door, while women were just grateful to get the job. I know I have been part of that; too reluctant to think I could negotiate more on the way in. The last time I put my foot down about my title, a female HR colleague lectured me, as if she was giving me a friendly warning, that there were men in the company who would not be at all pleased. You won’t be liked, was the message. This time I was old enough not to care. I had earned the title and titles matter. Titles are linked to money. Perceptions about roles and seniority shape our chances for promotion.

Speaking of promotions, at the same time we learned that the gender pay gap had worsened, it was also noted that in the last twelve months, not a single ASX 200 company had appointed a female CEO. I would place a bet that every one of those companies has someone responsible for Diversity and Inclusion. Of course, the D&I manager is not responsible for appointing a CEO, but they are supposed to be improving the fair pathway to the top table. And how’s that all going? Because some more excuses will be trotted out for the dearth of women as CEOs, and they will include the story that women are not in pole position to lead. Let’s step back then. Who is deciding on pole positions?  

If D&I professionals have been in place for some years, they would have made some notable progress in shaping a meritocracy. No? If you are wondering what impact D&I is having in the world, perhaps read Pamela Newkirk’s book Diversity Inc, The Failed Promise of Billion Dollar Business. It turns out that putting everyone through the awareness training is not doing anything beyond providing a warm glow for a few hours or days and allowing companies to tick a box to say, ‘we’re doing all we can’. Sometimes those awareness classes and roles will enable the company to win contracts and nominate themselves for prizes. And sometimes those efforts are set up to do precisely nothing beyond some virtue signalling on social media.   I sound cynical and I am.

I was once invited to join the newly created D&I committee in an ASX listed Australian company that had a 34% gender pay gap. It didn’t have the moral compass to just fix the gap and it could have fixed the gap overnight by slightly reducing one or two bonuses, but it was somehow motivated to set up a Diversity and Inclusion Committee.  Bob (his real name) was the head of said committee. We knew the company’s sincerity about the issue from that selection. Around that time, Bob brushed aside my request for equal pay and when I left the company, one of Bob’s mates replaced me and immediately earned a salary that was 60% higher than mine. Was he more qualified, you may wonder? In fact, he wasn’t qualified in my line of work at all.   

Should I have taken this large company to court? Absolutely, and I would happily have done so if I’d had the time, energy and the willingness to risk losing the case and having to pay their costs. Fast forward a couple of years, and I opened the annual report of the WGEA (Work Gender Equality Agency) to find that Bob had been quoted on one of the pages, offering up a platitude about the potential of women in the workforce. You couldn’t make that up, and I haven’t.

Here’s another question I have, and I know it’s provocative, but I think it must be asked. Are we, as employees, wasting too much valuable time picking the wrong battles? There are some hypersensitive claims out there in the employment relations world taking up lifetimes of hours and energy, and these claims are often about hurt feelings. I know I’ve had my time and energy wasted by such claims and I pity many fellow HR professionals for the mind sapping weeks that can be taken up by vexatious and spurious claims.  I’m not saying any manager has the right to grab a bra strap, but I am saying that I would rather you grab a bra strap and hurt my feelings than pay me less than I’m worth.  But let me also add that I shouldn’t have to choose a preference.    

I believe after over 35 years at work and lived experience in being paid less than men in equivalent roles, that the maintenance of this gap is either wilful or at least, short of powerful champions with any true desire for change. Why do I say this? Because equal pay is one of the easiest things to fix. The gender pay gap is one of the quickest things to identify and this is because most employers have systems that can run such reports very quickly. Any board member or senior manager can request a report or a pay audit, take a highlighter pen and start asking, why is she on less than him?

Are you concerned that companies may be short of the funds to redress the imbalances? I call bullshit on that bit of fretting. I assure you that several times a year in most private companies, payroll and HR will work at warp speed to apply merit increases, cost of living increases, bonuses, overtime, special allowances, and many other changes that were not necessarily forecast or predicted.  And if you want to argue that your business will be teetering on the edge unless you practice wilful pay discrimination, then perhaps you deserve to be out of business.

The Chief of the WGEA, Libby Lyons, responded to the pay gap news by suggesting that we needed to start a conversation. With respect, we don’t. The conversation started long ago. Enough conversation. Really. Reporting is not action. We are bringing knives to a gun fight. In fact, we’re not even at the gun fight. Many of us were groomed and reinforced to believe that money conversations are not polite, and this is sending too many of us into a future of poverty. There is a worrying gap in female super funds and a sharp rise in homelessness among older women.  It’s not going to solve every problem, but we need to be training women to have assertive pay conversations. We need a fund for litigation that arises when a lone woman takes on her employer over a deliberate breach.   We need significant penalties for companies in breach, or they will never pay attention. For many of us who work in the private sector, without transparent pay systems, no-one has our back. It is time for some real backing.