Solving the "77 Cent" Problem: What Will It Take to Balance the Pay Scale?

Shelley Zalis, Founder, The Girls' Lounge & Chairwoman, TFQ and Lara Setrakian, Co-Founder & Executive Editor, News Deeply

Lilly Ledbetter broke through the glass ceiling at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company - becoming one of the first women in company management in 1979. She worked for nearly two decades before finding out that she was paid thousands of dollars less than her male counterparts doing a comparable job. Over the course of her career it amounted to $200,000 of lost wages, plus lower pension and social security benefits - a whole lifetime of diminished earnings for practically the same work. 
 
Many of us know a Lilly Ledbetter; at times, many of us have felt like a Lilly ourselves. We've felt undervalued, underestimated, undercompensated, or diminished in some way in our professional life. It's a reality we face on too many of our working days.
 
Ledbetter fought back, taking her case for fair pay to the Supreme Court, and eventually to the White House. President Barack Obama put equal pay for women on the national agenda with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, one of his first major initiatives in office.
 
That raised the volume on the issue, but it didn't solve the problem. It's time to come up with solutions, new approaches to the problem that can close the gap and create a basic fairness in our society. 
 
Our first instinct was to call this "the 77 cent problem" - since The White House publicized the statistic that, on average, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for full time work. But that number hit a contentious button. Critics of Obama - along with critics of the push for wage equality - attacked the number as baseless. It's a complicated thing to compare men and women in the workplace, they said, and waved off the difference in pay (often as something that was squarely a woman's fault). The 77 cent number came under attack, and so did the argument that we need to work toward equality.
 
"The '77 cents' formulation is a colloquialism--shorthand for expressing a complex economic truth," wrote the Center for American Progress, in a post explaining and defending the methodology behind the number.
 
"What it conveys is the fact that, if you average out what all women, working full time, year round, earn and compare that number to what all men working full time, year round, earn, you find that women take home 77 percent of what men do."
 
The number "does not compare men and women doing identical work." But fortunately the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes it relatively easy to pull together that view. An array of data captured last month in Fortune Magazine shows the wage gap through the lens of different professions - a scatterplot of inequality by job category. Women janitors and building cleaners did, in fact, make 77 cents on a man's dollar. Women teachers made even less, at 70 cents. Women physicians and surgeons made 62 cents, compared to their male counterparts. Women in marketing and related fields are relatively "lucky" for making 79 cents per dollar - more than 20% less than their male counterparts.
 
With that kind of evidence, there's no question that this is a problem. So what do we do about it?
 
Well, we start by having an honest conversation. Gender inequality is happening in America, and it's happening to us. We need to understand where it's coming from and how we can address it at the root. Is it a caregiver issue, a legacy issue, an unconscious bias? Are we not bold and assertive enough to know our value? Are we not supporting women enough to do their best work, alongside their obligations to family and caregiving? If we're losing women in the professional arena, then we're losing one of the most powerful assets in American business: our diversity.
 
Maybe the strengths we represent as women have not traditionally been valued, in financial terms. Women have unique professional skills that we should not hide. Enhanced collaboration, team building, empathy, authenticity, handling complexity - we are known for doing these things supremely well, and these are the qualities that are most needed in the 21st century world. Read the Athena Doctrine, a fascinating book that details all of these female qualities and how they are on the rise in business, politics, and society at large.
 
By unpacking the wage gap we understand that our value as women is not being rewarded with market value. It's time for that to change. It's time for us not to hide what makes us different, but to embrace it and to call out why it's a precious part of our workplace.
 
At CGI this week a group of companies launched a groundbreaking commitment, under the banner of the Business Coalition for Global Workplace Fairness. Danone US, Nestle, Barclays and KKR, in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, committed to implement a range of parental workplace support practices. From longer paid maternity leave to studying retention rates of new mothers, to improving policies to support breastfeeding moms, these companies are working to enhance how we balance work and caregiving - in ways that will make it possible for women to achieve and rise in the workplace.
 
It's just one step in a great new direction. As we look at all the factors that contribute to the wage gap, it's clear that more can be done to support women as leaders in the workplace. It's time to kick off a conversation about what needs to come next. And we can be sure, as that takes place, our women and our working world will be better off for it. 

About the Authors

Shelley Zalis, Founder, The Girls' Lounge & Chairwoman, TFQ

Shelley has gone against the grain most of her career, starting in 2000 when she left the corporate world to pioneer online research. Shelley created OTX (Online Testing Exchange), which in just nine years became one of the largest and fastest growing research companies in the world. She sold OTX to Ipsos in 2010, where she led global innovation in over 80 countries.
As the first female chief executive ranked in the research industry's top 25, she changed the game, brought emotion and passion to the boardroom and has devoted herself to becoming a mentor and friend to women and leaders in her industry. Her most recent endeavors include launching TFQ Ventures and The Girls' Lounge, which supports and mentors women to help them stand out with their unique leadership powers and transform corporate culture.... together.
Shelley continues to go against the grain to innovate and stimulate the industry. She is a board member of AWNY, Dress for Success and the Women's Military Symposium. Shelley has been awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, ARF Great Minds in Innovation award and AWNY's Game Changer award. A pioneer, a wife and a mother of three, she successfully juggles between CEO and Mom

Lara Setrakian, Co-Founder & Executive Editor, News Deeply

Lara Setrakian is the CEO of News Deeply. She spent five years as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. Now she's focused on the fusion of news and technology, building in-depth content hubs on the world's most important issues. Her first platform, Syria Deeply, produces award-winning coverage of the Syrian civil war. Ebola Deeply launched soon after, focused on the deadly outbreak, followed by Water Deeply, focused on the California drought. TIME Magazine her work "The Future of News," while Fast Company said it "outsmarts the news business, redefines crisis coverage."