I'm Tired of Employers Getting a Free Pass

Leaning In Will Not Solve Pay Equity Because Leaning Out Is Not The Problem

For fear that this post could be misinterpreted as accusatory or malicious (not my intention at all), I want to preface it by saying that in no way do I think the intentions of all involved are anything but genuine and true. Nor do I question the validity or integrity of the panel in question. I have personal relationships with the women involved and I witness their fierce dedication to issues affecting women and girls on quite literally a daily basis (they are exceptional, really). This invite simply served as a catalyst for discussion of a broader issue.

I received an email this afternoon from The Women's Fund of Central Ohio, in collaboration with The Columbus Young Professionals Club, inviting me to a panel discussion on April 8th, 2014, Equal Pay Day, entitled Equal Pay: Leaning into your full potential.  

Here is the full text of the email introduction:

I read the email a few times trying to determine what it was about the invite that was bothering me. Then it hit me. The basic premise of this panel as outlined in the introduction rests on an implicit assumption that there is a legitimate reason why women are not being paid as much as their male counterparts for the same work, and that reason is the women themselves

The battle over pay equity revolves around the fact that women are not paid the same amount as men for equal work. If women aren't being paid as much as men because they aren't "leaning in to their full potential," or because they don't "feel confident and capable in the workplace," then there isn't really a valid argument for equal pay is there? In fact, these are precisely the excuses that many employers offer when they are confronted about this issue. The false assumption that women are somehow less committed to their jobs than men is one that continues to be internalized by employers and employees alike, which results in male workers being paid more than their female colleagues for the exact same job. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter

Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. For most of those years, she worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing substantially similar work. Over time, however, her pay slipped in comparison to the pay of male area managers with equal or less seniority. By the end of 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark: Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236.

I can't help but feel that hosting a panel discussion about leaning in on Equal Pay Day sends the wrong message. It tells women that it isn't your employer who needs to change, it's you. Institutional sexism is not the reason you are being paid less, you're being paid less because you aren't "leaning into your full potential," and because you don't "feel like your true value is being seen and appreciated." I will acknowledge that there are situations where these reasons do, in fact, play a part in pay disparities, but I don't necessarily think that Equal Pay Day is the appropriate time to address them. 

Pay equity and leaning in are two distinct problems that don't always overlap. There are millions of women who can "lean in" until they are blue in the face (many lean in to multiple jobs), but that will not increase their pay. There are millions of women who can take any and all steps to "feel confident and capable in the workplace," but that will not increase their pay. Women make up the majority of workers in minimum wage jobs in which they have practically zero power and influence in relation to their bosses. Plus, the reality is that the many women do not have the luxury of being able to stroll confidently into their boss's office to ask for a raise. 

I think the reason we spend so much time talking about what we as women can do is because we feel like it is the only thing over which we have any power. We can change ourselves but we can't change other people (or organizations). If we lean in just a bit more and work just a little harder perhaps it will make a difference. 

But it isn't enough. 

What about the employers?

At what point do we ask what they can (and should) be doing? We discuss "leaning in" and other empowering mantras every other day of the year, but talking among ourselves about what we as women can do, means absolutely nothing if employers aren't on board. As long as employers can get away with paying some employees less than others, they will continue to do so. Quite frankly, providing a space for female employees to talk about what they can be doing better to merit better (or even equal) pay, instead of demanding it from the employer is pretty convenient for the employer

The panel invite is right. We, as women, do have the power to change the pay disparities between men and women. But not just through modification of ourselves. Through social advocacy and awareness and changes in public policy. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter.

What can we do? 

Instead of discussing more actions that women can take to address pay equity, what if we use this one day to host a panel of candidates for public office, elected officials, CEO's, and other community leaders who are proactively working with businesses and employers on policies that will help further the cause?

What if we use this one day to highlight businesses and employers that are taking (and have taken) steps to create a more equal workplace and the positive changes those steps have brought about? 

What if we invite employers to a panel discussion that asks if they are leaning in to their full potential? Are they recognizing the "true value" of their female employees?