Victoria Budson on Closing Gender Gaps

by Molly Lanzarotta, interviewed on April 18, 2014

There is a general awareness that women in the U.S. have made great progress in recent decades, but many people are shocked to learn that women are still not receiving equal pay for equal work.

Victoria A. Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program, is dedicated to working towards closing gender gaps. She was named one of CNN’s 10 Visionary Women for 2014.

Q. Why are gender-related wage and opportunity gaps such intractable problems?

Budson:You know, that’s an excellent question. What we find is that most people think that the problems are too difficult and too big to solve. The work that we focus on at the Women and Public Policy Program is about identifying what the gaps are and creating interventions to help close the gaps.

We look at this in a number of areas: economic opportunity, health, political participation, and education. Once one stops focusing just on what the gap is, but how to solve it, you can really begin to identify what leaders – whether that’s in the governmental sector, or whether that’s in civil society, non-profit, or the private sector – can do to help close the gaps.

We also look at how individuals can navigate these systems reducing the effects of bias and answer questions such as the following. So, if you’re aware that there may be a wage gap, what can you do to identify whether or not you’re someone who is underpaid?, What strategies can you employ to shift that? It’s this two-pronged approach—systemic and indivdual--that effectively combats this problem.

Gender-related gaps are so intractable because the issues are multi-faceted. There are implicit and explicit biases. We tend to have a lot of norms which exist in our own minds. For organizations, whenever they’re hiring, you’re really looking at each person in relation to a stereotype or a norm. Who is the average worker in this position? And each time you’re making a hire, you’re comparing your hire to that idealized image of a typical worker. And then once the hire is made, one tends to pay and promote most those who are the norm.

One of the other reasons it’s so intractable is it’s not something that’s easy for individual women to inoculate themselves against. For example, it would be easy to assume that the more education a woman has, the smaller the wage gap. In fact, it’s the opposite. The higher the level of a woman’s education, the broader the wage gap. In low wage positions, one is often paid hourly and every worker who does that job is paid the same amount or near the same, and there’s less discretion by the supervisor as to what they can pay an employee. But when you get to a situation where one is a very high wage worker, and in a highly-educated market, what the jobs are, and who defines the job and its compensation, has much more latitude from manager to manager. Whenever there’s large latitude and low transparency, that’s when you get the largest gaps because people’s implicit biases play out.

Q. So what can people do to help close these gaps?

Budson:In order to help close the wage gap, there are a number of things that organizational leaders can do, managers in organizations can do, and then a set of things that individuals can do.

So, first, the most important thing organizationally is to do a wage audit: to really look at your workforce, the positions, who is getting paid how much, and for what work? And it’s very often that one can find pretty good equity within units with small discrepancies, but when you aggregate them over an entire organization, you’ll find that there are patterns, and that there may be a larger wage gap by gender or race when one looks at the whole organization. So, it’s important to first do that due diligence internally.

The next thing to do is to look at hiring and promotion practices. Whenever one is hiring one person at a time, people tend to do two things: one, they tend to really prefer to hire a person who fits the normscape for what the most likely worker in that profession looks like; by race, by age, and by gender. And, then, when one is hiring in big groups, rather than one individual at a time, you’re much more likely to think about all the different attributes that your organization or business unit might want represented. You know, an easy way of thinking about it is, if you look at a law firm that is bringing in a large group of individuals as first year associates, most firms are hiring about 50 percent women and 50 percent men, with diversity by race within that group as well. However, when you then follow promotion and retention rates, promotions are often done one at a time. There’s research that indicates in law, for example, that when one gets down to the more granular level and looks at hiring and then looks at promotion, there is a very significant amount of bias, which is why women aren’t promoted as frequently, and that this amount of bias is somewhat predictable by how much bias there is in society against women.

So, what that really tells us, in a nutshell, is that norms about women’s role, and women’s power, and women’s status play out in the wage gap, and that’s one of the things that makes it intractable. But once one knows that, the hiring officer or promoting officer, as well as the individual, can do something about it. A number of interventions that one can do are as follows: one, after one has done a wage audit, one can talk about the results with all the different managers in the unit and ask people to address any problems. Two, one can have more defined roles and skill sets and experience levels that one is seeking and, then, examine how those roles, levels of experience, and skills are compensated. Next is transparency. Whenever bias is made transparent, people begin to be much more self-reflective on their implicit bias, and people, as individuals, are then much more capable of saying, gee, I think I’m being underpaid, and addressing the situation. So, for individuals you want to know how much your position is worth in the general marketplace and then how well it’s compensated within your organization, and you want to know how to negotiate well.

And there’s wonderful work that’s come out of our center, focused on negotiation. When women are negotiating, particularly salary, there’s a lot of data which tells us that if a woman says something relational during that negotiation, she’s much more likely to be heard and to be considered a desirable person to work with. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common that when women negotiate on behalf of themselves that there can be a backlash effect. This effect isn’t there when they’re negotiating on behalf of others. So, it’s really in this very narrow space of negotiating for yourself that women need to employ a strategy where they indicate that they are good community members and that they say something relational, which might look like, “I’m so pleased to be joining your team.” To have noted the team aspect before one makes the ask can mitigate social backlash. This is not something we wish women needed to do, but the data does bear out that women do better using relational phrases during negotiations.

Q. Why might public perceptions about women and equality – say, for example, in the area of pay – be so different from the reality?

Budson:Public perceptions can be different from the reality for a number of reasons. One, most people don’t want to think that they’re being underpaid or undervalued. And what we also see is the older a person is, the more likely they are to perceive a wage gap.

When you talk with college students, they think that these issues have been solved. We’ve raised two generations of women telling them they can be anything that they want to be, and then we stopped. And they believed us. And what we didn’t say is, you can be anything that you want to be, but you’re going to encounter implicit and explicit bias. You can be anything you want to be, but if you want to do something which is a non-traditional role for women, it’s going to be tough, and you’re going to have hurdles. We didn’t say that you’re less likely to be valued in the workplace. We didn’t tell women that when they have a child, where their male counterparts get what we call a “relational bonus” and people think of them as more organizationally committed and a more likeable person, that women, are on the other hand, are viewed as less engaged and more absent. So, one of the reasons that people have a very different impression is that’s the narrative that we’ve talked about as a society. Our myth is that we live in an egalitarian, equal, merit-based society, and our reality is that’s what we strive towards, but we’re still on the journey to actualize it as fully as it needs to be.

Q. Are there public policy approaches that are working in other countries that could help close gender gaps in the U.S.?

Budson: One of the things that, at the Women and Public Policy Program, we focus on regularly is identifying the types of interventions that help close the gaps. We have a broad group of faculty and we try to look at which policies we think are scalable and can be used in a different setting, what countries might they work adeptly in, and how we can create and identify which interventions can work in a number of places. And we also like to know how much will the needle move, where is it likely to work, what will the cost be?

Q. What are the greatest obstacles towards equality for women in 2014? What are the greatest opportunities?

Budson:I think in 2014, when we look at what the greatest obstacles are, I think there are two things anywhere in the world that provide the base for women’s equality. The first is statutory protection: the ability to own land, the right to have credit, access to capital, the ability to have freedom of movement and bodily integrity. And statutory protections are always an ongoing process of both vigilance and focus on increased and continuing gains towards a fully equal legal status.

And the second is that women need to be able to economically sustain themselves and their dependents over the arc of their adult life, whether or not they choose to exercise it. Without those two things, women will not be free and will not have equality.

The greatest opportunities for women in 2014 come in a couple ways. One, today we have tremendous focus on women and women’s equality, and opportunities for how to reexamine the workplace. Building upon that focus so that the openings are, then, catalyzed and actualized with real change is a significant opportunity, but in no way a foregone conclusion.

And the other opportunity which I think is so critical is that we still see women lagging behind when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math, and their pursuit of these fields. Conversely, we’ve reversed the education gap for women in the U.S. and in Europe, where the majority of individuals getting high school, college, and post-graduate degrees are all female. What we haven’t seen is a reversal of that gap or a move towards equality in the STEM fields, and that’s going to be really critical because those are the high wage, quick growing jobs. When economies are growing, women need to demonstrably be a part of STEM, and that’s going to be crucial towards women’s advancement in many countries.


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