Rikleen Institute LLC

Karma won't shrink the gender wage gap

October 17, 2014

This post originally appeared in Fortune. 

For much too long, women looking to move up in the working world have been told how to behave. It’s time for employers to step up.

We now have a new word of advice for women seeking to be paid what they are worth in today’s workplace: karma.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made headlines recently when he said women shouldn’t ask for pay raises, but rather trust that “the system will give the right raises as someone goes along in their career.” In other words, be a good girl. Be my dependable go-to person; trust that things will work out and in doing so, stay quiet and don’t ask for things for yourself. Trust in karma.

It is hard to imagine that, when Nadella became CEO earlier this year, karma produced his complex compensation package consisting of salary, cash bonuses, and stock bonuses expected to total $18 million by 2015. Over time, it is estimated that Nadella could earn an additional $100 million in incentivized compensation through Microsoft stock.

Though Nadella backpedaled his remarks, it’s easy to see why many women (and men) would not immediately forgive a statement like that. The incident is just one more example of the way in which unconscious bias permeates the way women are expected to behave in the workplace, and the penalties they suffer for stepping outside those expectations.

Nadella’s initial, unscripted words can be viewed as a true reflection of his perspective, not the carefully crafted apology that was required for him to move past the outrage. His mea culpa demonstrates that the leadership and compensation gaps are not closing because we are looking in the wrong place to solve the problem.

For too long, women have received myriad instructions telling them how they should behave in order to move up the corporate ladder. Yes, it’s important for women to ‘Lean in,’ but it’s fair to say the wage gap between men and women cannot be blamed on women’s commitment to and effectiveness in their jobs. It’s time for companies and employers to look within and fix their workplaces.

Too few senior executives have done the hard work needed to remove the institutional barriers that have allowed gender inequities to continue; the wage gap remains and widens with age. Men make up more than 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs. And research continues to demonstrate bias against mothers in the workplace: when women marry and have children, their average incomes drop; married men with children experience an increase in salary compared to their childless male counterparts.

If companies truly want to have a more diverse workforce at the senior levels, and if they are sincere in wanting to achieve pay equity, they will focus on the internal steps that must be taken in order to succeed.

As a starting point, here are 4 key steps to take.

  • Monitor assignments at all levels of professional development and ensure that women have equal access to the internal informal networks so critical to career success.
  • Assess and benchmark compensation data. The old adage continues to hold true: you cannot change what you do not measure. Understand where compensation gender gaps exist in the organization and continually monitor for improvements.
  • Hold managers accountable for metrics. Salary and bonuses should be tied to successful steps to create a gender equal workplace.
  • Train the workplace in unconscious bias, and then implement structural mechanisms to minimize its impacts. Nothing influences the assignments, opportunities, and compensation of individuals more than the unconscious bias that every person brings to their judgments of others. In the workplace, unrecognized and unchecked unconscious bias can result in exclusion and missed opportunities. Understanding how each person’s life experiences influence how they evaluate others provides the opening for personal insights, honest conversations, and structural change.

These steps are a starting point. Changing a company’s culture requires a commitment from the highest levels of the organization to set a tone, communicate expectations and monitor results. This is how pay equity could finally be achieved. When executives make this commitment, good karma is guaranteed to follow.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, the author of You Raised Us – Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, is the president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and Executive-in-Residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family.