Was Abramson Squeezed Out by the Pay Gap? It's Complicated

As a professional compensation expert and personal advocate for equal pay, I have been intrigued by the recent news of high level professionals still combatting the gender pay gap. The announcement this week is that the New York Times fired its executive editor, Jill Abramson, from the paper's top job. This is noteworthy on many levels; Abramson was the first woman ever to be appointed executive editor by the paper in its 160-year existence, and yet her tenure lasted less than three years.

Reports from NPR and the New Yorker have suggested that a key factor in Abramson's removal was that she complained about unequal pay after discovering her salary was "considerably less" than her predecessor, male editor Bill Keller. However, reports from the paper push back, saying her total compensation was "not meaningfully less than Bill Keller's."

Abramson is not the first woman to be faced with this situation, nor will she be the last. Earlier this year, General Motors came under fire because the compensation being paid to its first female CEO, Mary Barra, was also considerably less than her male predecessor. Last month, I wrote about what women should do if they suspect they are being paid less than their male counterpart.

In all of this media chaos surrounding this issue, it's essential to remember that being paid fairly is not the necessarily being paid equally. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Ms. Abramson's total compensation as executive editor "was directly comparable to Bill Keller's" -- even though it may not have been actually the same.

There are often justifiable reasons for differences in pay, and Abramson has not yet publicly commented on her reasons for being asked to leave her position at the paper or on the details of her pay structure. So, it remains to be seen whether her pay was unequal but fair or if she was, in fact, the victim of a discriminatory differential in pay.

Nevertheless, here are a few facts about how many companies compile their top executive compensation packages. These packages usually contain multiple components; most common are base salary, bonus, long-term income payments and benefits/perks. Each component should be associated with a concrete objective and is heavily influenced by what the individual brings to the table.

Compensation Component
  • Base Salary - Salary is largely based on the market value of the job, experience, tenure, and the individual's performance.
  • Bonus - Typically a reward for achievement of short-term goals and could vary significantly from year to year.
  • Long-term income payments - Long-term compensation could be delivered through equity or cash and recognizes achievement of long-term goals; it also helps retain top performers.
  • Benefits/Perquisites - Benefits, pensions, perks such as meals or transportation allowances, and retirement accounts are great ways to deliver tax-sheltered income and enable companies to stay competitive in the market place.

If you find out you may be making less than your male predecessor, here are three things to do:

1. Arrange a meeting with your manager. Let him or her know that you want to understand your compensation better and that you do not believe you are being paid fairly. Make sure you have your facts in-hand, including up-to-date market data for your job, as well as, what others are making internally.

2. Ask for a raise. Base your request on your performance, value to the company, and desire to be paid equitably to others within the organization.

3. Anticipate objections. Anticipate possible objections to your request for more money. Respond your manager's objections with a positive tone. Depending on his or her response, you can ask how to best address his or her concerns and request a meeting to discuss the issue again, or you can escalate the issue to HR or consider consulting an attorney, or you can always update your resume and start looking for a job where you will get paid what you are worth.

Abramson's story reveals all too well that the struggle for pay equity is far from over. The wage gap between men and women in the U.S. has been stagnant for the last decade, and the average woman has to work almost 12 years longer to earn the same amount as her male peers. But no matter what finally emerges, Abramson's firing is bringing this issue into the forefront again -- and continued dialog can bring progressive action.