Light from a Dark Night

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Image from istockphoto

We met in the middle of the night in a nearly empty parking garage at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.  My boss and I were returning from a weeklong business trip to the West Coast, laden with materials and personal stuff.  Our flight landed at about 11:30 PM; it was approaching midnight when my boss offered to escort me to my car.

After picking up loads of stuff from the baggage claim, I rented a pushcart for the trip to my car.  You were standing in the deserted elevator vestibule of the parking garage.  I assumed that you were among those who scrape together the round trip train fare to O’Hare for your night job of collecting  $.25 for each baggage cart you returned, hustling for tips by assisting travelers, or just hustling.

You were a teenager at the time; I’d guess about 16. We didn’t acknowledge each other when we met.  I noticed that you wore the uniform of a Black urban youth when you waited for my boss and I to empty my cart so you could claim its bounty. I remembered to put my car keys in my pocket – handy for a quick retreat.

I first heard your voice when you yelled to us, “Hey!” I didn’t argue with my boss when he said, “ Just keep going.” We did, moving a little faster. You moved faster, too, then summoned us again,“Hey!” Once more, I ignored your call. I felt better about having my keys handy and remembered their potential as a self-defense tool from my street safety class. We moved fast, but you moved faster. Your call never changed, “Hey!”

I remember my relief when we reached the safe harbor of my car, followed by fear when I looked in my rear view mirror to see you directly behind my car. It was my boss who first noticed that you were pointing something towards us. I was the one to recognize this object as my briefcase. You were following us to return the briefcase I left in the luggage cart.

I can’t remember the words exchanged in our only conversation.  I muttered something like “ Thank you” as I pushed a few dollars into your hand in exchange for my fully intact briefcase. But I will never forget the way you looked at me the only time we made eye contact. It wasn’t with resentment or anger or hostility. These would have been easier to accept than the resignation I saw. Your eyes expressed what you expected. Of course, you’d ignore me. Of course, you’d run away. Of course, you’d be afraid of me. Of course.

I think of you sometimes. I thought of you this weekend.  I think of you every year when I listen to the Youth Award Winners from UCAN. Some of these remarkable young leaders look like you. They’ve been labeled. They’ve watched people cross the street when they come by. They’ve lived in danger.  They’ve suffered trauma. They’ve been written off before they’ve even started. And, they are determined to prove doubters like me wrong about them.

I hope you’ve had a good life. Like our future leaders from UCAN, I hope that you’ve opened your heart to forgive and give the world another chance. And, if necessary, to give yourself another chance.  Because we need you to live the meaningful life you deserve. We need your hope. We need your talent. We need your dreams. We need you to make a future where we do better.

Hear Me Roar: Why Gender Pay Inequity Matters

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It’s taken me days to calm down enough to write this article. The topic of gender wage equity has become part of the discussion in the U.S. Presidential campaign, when the two major party candidates were asked about their views on the Fair Wage Act adopted four years ago.  In my opinion, one candidate’s response completely missed the point and the other did not go far enough.  This exchange was disappointing. Still, I didn’t get mad until I heard two self-satisfied fifty something male commentators, neither of whom I suspect have ever been asked “How can you manage your job and your family?” or “What will you do after the baby arrives?” dismiss gender wage inequity as irrelevant to the campaign.

Gender wage equity is an economic issue. When women make less money, they spend less money.  They buy fewer things that create other jobs. They save less for retirement. They accrue less in benefits like Social Security. Women are already more likely to be poor in old age, potentially resulting in greater dependence on social services. And since 47 percent of the U.S. workforce consists of women,  almost half the workforce underachieves economically. That’s why it’s an issue.

The Stubborn Facts

In the United States, women earn about 77% of every dollar a man makes. Many completely defensible factors go into determining a wage: demand and supply of skills, particular experience, education, and training. It’s reasonable to think there are legitimate reasons for the wage gap. But it’s far more difficult to understand in light of the conclusions from Francine Blau, a distinguished labor economist from Cornell University. Dr. Blau has research results that suggest that even when all human capital factors are controlled, such as the job, level of education and years of prior work experience, women still make 9% less then men. The wage gap remains stubborn. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy research, if the gender wage gap closes at the current rate, it will take until 2056 to reach gender wage parity.

Our Options

We don’t have to wait 44 years for approximately half of the workforce to be paid equitably. We don’t have to water down our expectations for women or over pay for poor performance or unprepared talent. Performance, experience and training are critical factors in determining compensation.  My point is that women who want to be in the workforce and have the ambition to succeed should have a shot at equity. Lots of thoughtful people have considered the issue and made serious recommendations. I like the ideas published by Diane Jacobs in 2010 as a result of a study including 22 large, mid size and small organizations around the globe, representing 630,000 people. Her topic was regarding getting more women in the talent pipeline, but her “Next Practice” suggestions seem relevant to the accelerating progress on the wage gap, too.

The following four practices are a combination of Jacob’s recommendations and those from other sources.  These are not easy and they won’t solve everything regarding wage inequity. But they can make a workplace fairer and fairer is what I’m going for.

1. Enlist Men As Change Agents
Men have the numbers. Approximately 84 percent of officers in U.S. companies are male. They either make the decisions or participate in the conversation when workplace policies and practices are discussed. The workplace can’t change without their engagement. Jacob’s study suggests, and I agree, it is time to skip the “women only” meetings or retreats where solutions are created then presented back to the guys at the top. Invite the men to be part of the process. Develop positive, concrete practices with them. Specifically describe the support necessary from them.  The vast majority of men want to be fair; give them a chance to show it.

2. Measure and Correct
Look at your key roles: the ones with the greatest opportunity for experience and reward. How many are held by women?  How many women are being actively prepared? Examine team or group performance-ratings over the past three years.  Any patterns? Look at compensation awards and ratios.  If there are differences, ask why. Your HR or Compensation department can help you with much of this analysis. There may be reasons for differences. There may be solutions for shortfalls. But you won’t know until you ask. Put this analysis into the annual year-end practice to avoid unintended inequities.

3. Weed Out Workplace Bias
Yes, it still exists. Some studies still show actual discrimination, such as the one that shows women having a greater likelihood of selection to a symphony if they audition behind a curtain.  But more subtle bias also sabotages women.

In her magnificent article Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter  calls out the unintended bias against working parents, especially women who “choose” to work. She describes a scenario that might seem familiar: The single employee who rises before dawn to train for a marathon is seen as goal oriented, disciplined and, an excellent manager of time. The working parent, who rises before dawn to get children up, organized and out the door is to be accommodated. Yes, some women choose to work and have children. But that often makes them more organized, determined and great at time management, not less. And, people choose to run marathons, too. When you hear bias in conversations or talent discussions, call it out.

4. Change the Culture of Face Time
Many organizations proudly tout their “flexibility” policies. Flexibility is an important aspect to attract employees in today’s mobile and wired workforce. But organizations must address the bias of face time to make it a legitimate option. So, what happens to the woman who goes home at 5:00 PM while her male colleagues stay until 8:00 PM? According to research conducted by Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable, she’s more likely to get lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions, even if she logs on at home and works just as many hours as the guys in the office.  Flexibility may cost her money. Read the Elsbach and Cable article in the MIT Sloan Management Review for practices to put in place to change the culture as well as the policy on flextime.

When you ask one women for her opinion, you get one woman’s opinion.  Here is mine: We must encourage and support women who have the capability and ambition to reach their professional potential. We must reward them fairly so they can take care of themselves and their families now and in the future. It’s my issue. In  terms of  its economic impact, it’s our issue. And that’s why it matters.

References (And Great Reading on This Topic)

Weissman, Jordan (2012). Why Are Women Paid Less? The Atlantic. Available online at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/why-are-women-paid-less/263776

Slaughter, Anne-Marie (2012). Why Women Still Can’t Have It All? The Atlantic. Available online at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can’t-have-it-all/ 309020

Elsbach, Kimberly and Cable, Daniel (2012). Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters. MIT Sloan Management Review,  Summer 2012. Available online at: sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/2012-summer/53407/why-showing-your-face-at-work-matters/

Jacobs, Diane (2010). Women In The Pipeline: Next Practice Actions. Ivey Business Journal, Nov/Dec. 201, vol. 74,no. 6., pp. 1-35. Available online at: www.iveybusinessjournal.com/topics/the-organization/women-in-the-pipeline-next-practice-actions#