When the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was signed, advocates for equal pay believed that a new era was dawning, an era in which the gender pay gap - the gap which means that white women earn around $0.78 for every dollar earned by a white man, while women of color and men of color earn even less -- would finally close.
In the six years since, however, there has been absolutely no sign that the gap is closing at all, according to CNN. The gap has narrowed since the 1970s, in large part due to women becoming more educated and advancing into more fields, but it shows no signs of going away on its own.
The gap shows up in many different ways; women are more likely to be career tracked into roles like customer service, human resources or marketing, which traditionally make less money than executives, sales or management. The gap is also visible, however, when looking at men and women who are in comparable positions with comparable experience.
So why should a company care? After all, few businesses look at their own ranks and believe that they aren't treating their employees equally. What does a company need to do differently to ensure that they truly are offering equal pay for equal work?
Don't Blame Women
During the summer of 2015, an article in The Guardian by Naomi Wolf caused a stir when it suggested that young women's use of "vocal fry" was keeping them from succeeding in the workplace. Ellen Leanse explained that if women would just stop saying just, promotions would follow. Comedian Amy Schumer told women to stop starting sentences or comments with "I'm sorry, but..." and career coaches warn against using qualifiers like "I'm not an expert, but...". The city of Boston is offering free negotiation classes to women, so that they can succeed in the workplace.
None of these ideas are inherently bad. Some women may struggle to negotiate effectively, and benefit from lessons. Everyone in a business environment needs to pay attention to their language, and question whether it's setting them up for success or pointing towards inexperience.
But as Ann Friedmen pointed out in New York Magazine, all of this focus on what women are doing wrong boils down to expecting them to fix a problem that they did not create. Emily Peck went into more detail in Huffington Post, talking about the many problems in the workplace that women can solve -- and the ones that they can't.
Before you insist that the women in your business don't want to be promoted, consider whether you're creating an environment that encourages them to seek out executive positions, high powered sales jobs and C-suites.
How can your company contribute to better pay equality?
If you want your company to be a leader in narrowing the gender pay gap - after all, we know that companies which focus on employee happiness see more success long term - there are several steps you can take to both explicitly and implicitly ensure that your company is offering equal opportunities to its workers.
• Don't "Mommytrack" your employees. Most corporations follow a model where everyone can apply for positions, and assume that women will apply to positions that interest them. Research, however, has shown this to be untrue in many environments. In math classes, girls are less likely to raise their hands than boys, even though they're more likely to be correct, for example. Google recently experimented with a model where they prompted employees through email that it was time to apply for promotions; they saw their rates of women applying skyrocket.
• Reward those who work a sane number of hours. In many companies, the culture suggests that only those who work a hundred hours a week can succeed at various positions. Instead of focusing on the number of hours that are worked, focus rewards on those employees who achieve results in a reasonable number of hours. This makes the position seem feasible to those who have a family or other obligations outside of work.
• Push for changes that matter. The BBC has pointed out many times over the years that Nordic countries do the most to support families, and have also done the most to close the gender pay gap. Can your company offer onsite daycare, flex time, more forgiving family leave policies? These are changes that will encourage parents of all genders to stay with a company for the long term.
While there are many conversations to be had on what causes the wage gap, and why it matters, the business perspective offered by Dana Theus at Huffington Post may carry the day amongst business owners. To simplify, Theus rejects the sociological arguments about pay equality, saying that women's choices rule the day there.
Instead, she suggests that women who are unhappy with their pay at a given company will quickly churn out of the company, meaning that businesses are wasting their dollars on boarding and training. Businesses succeed by creating loyal, invested employees; if employees believe that they are unjustly served by the employer, they won't stay.
If for no other reason, focusing on making sure that women are satisfied with their positions, promotions and pay is just good business sense.