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Will 2020’s Remote Work Revolution Widen the Pay Gap, or Close it for Good?

Written by Guest Writer Anjali Patel

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash


I have a confession. I get annoyed when people forget holidays, especially those that fall on the same day every year. After decades on Earth, how do some people still forget when Independence Day or Halloween is approaching?


I’m a little more tolerant of holidays that fluctuate every year. Take Equal Pay Day, which was on March 31 in 2020. You’d be forgiven for not commemorating the day because it’s not exactly a cause for celebration. Equal Pay Day marks how many extra days women have to work to earn what men earned in the previous year. For 2020, March 31 marked the day women’s paychecks would finally catch up with the men’s 2019 wages.


When we compare men’s and women’s wages, it’s important to note that there are two

types of wage gaps: the uncontrolled wage gap and the controlled wage gap.

The controlled wage gap controls every factor imaginable: education, industry, job title, city, etc. One would think that pay would be equal here, in this day and age, but it isn’t. The controlled pay gap varies between 94 and 98 cents on the dollar, which means that someone named Kristy will make 94-98 cents while a man named Kris with the same credentials and years of service will get $1.00 for the same work.


An uncontrolled wage gap compares all working women to all working men. The uncontrolled gender pay gap is 81 cents on the dollar, depending on the state. The uncontrolled gap doesn’t control for things like job level or experiences.


Let’s get a little more specific about the gap. Women in America comprise nearly half of the entry-level workforce but comprise only a fifth of the lucrative C-suite. Men are promoted at a rate much higher than women. Why is this? One (misguided) explanation for the wage gap is that women are less ambitious: they may lack passion or initiative to ask for raises. They may choose to press the brakes on their careers to take care of children or aging parents. It’s their choice, and their fault.


But it’s not so simple. Women don’t lack skill, and they don’t lack ambition. They are just aren’t paid fairly for it. Want proof? Keep reading.


Bias in Promotions


For every 100 men promoted, only 72 women are promoted, regardless of similarities in performance and experience. By mid-career, men are 70% more likely than women to be executives. What biases—explicit or implicit—may be driving this difference?

Rachel Thomas, co-founder of global women community Lean In, discusses a concept called performance bias, “a belief that men are slightly more capable or competent than they are, and that women are slightly less capable and competent than they are — it’s so pervasive that it impacts our decision-making.” Lean In uses the phrase “broken rung” to describe the problem of dismissing qualified women for management roles. Put simply, there’s no shortage of qualified women. There’s a shortage of fair opportunities.


Bias in Career Choices and Hiring


When analyzing the gender pay gap, it’s notable that women and men often end up in different career paths, but why? Are men simply better at certain higher-paying professions, as proclaimed by Google Software Engineer James Damore? In the summer of 2017, Damore perceived too much gender diversity. In the months prior, he had been growing increasingly upset over the way Google was seeking to increase the number of minority and women employees, which Damore considered reverse discrimination. “It was wrong for Google to be pursuing diversity because men are naturally better with computers,” Damore wrote in a ten-page memo. His report went viral, and Google fired him.


But wait. Can biological brain differences between the genders explain the gender gap in fields like engineering, science, and math? Nope. This question has been asked and answered countless times. Studies repeatedly show that men and women are far more alike than they are different.


There are no “hard wired” differences between the genders. The differences come in from our own misguided notions, like biases against certain genders or a lack of opportunities to foster women from joining particular professions. The problem isn’t our brains. It’s the biased environments we are forced to fight against.


Unlike James Damore, many women will never have to worry about getting fired because they may never be hired in the first place. Endless data shows us that when evaluating identical resumes, employers may be a lot less likely to hire female candidates over identical male candidates. One simple letter in a name (Jon versus Jen) could make a huge difference in a person’s job prospects. Jen may never get a chance to shatter the glass ceiling of an engineering firm because she’ll never step foot inside the building.


The Parenthood Tax


Research by Harvard University’s Claudia Goldin points to an obvious but difficult source of the gender pay gap: women are more likely than men to take time out of their careers to take care of children and ageing parents. They need flexible work schedules to accommodate their disproportionate number of familial obligations, so they often take flexible jobs that pay less with little to no room for promotions. What can companies do to address these issues and give women an equal chance to advance?


Can the global pandemic of 2020 provide us with answers?


Enter the Double-Edged Sword of COVID-19 Remote Work


Picture this: A deadly pandemic causes us to isolate and shelter in our homes. Once taking place in a centralized office, our work is abruptly shifted to our kitchen table, mere feet away from our children’s virtual classrooms (they’re home now too).


Many women, saddled with childcare responsibilities, will have to drop out of the labour force or cut their hours, hurting their future job prospects. The gender pay gap? According to leading economists, the gender pay gap may now widen significantly and take an additional ten years to close back to what it was before the pandemic.


As for the rest of us? We’ve become subjects in the world’s largest social experiment as we all learn to adapt to the “new normal” of remote work.


As 2020 starts nearing 2021, we ask ourselves: which elements of remote work (for those of us fortunate enough to still be in the workplace) will follow us into the post-pandemic world?


Many companies have already started answering this question as they realize that people can actually get work done outside of an office. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter announced that employees could continue working remotely, even after the pandemic ends. Many other companies have already decided to follow suit by allowing employees the option of remote work. The impact of the pandemic- induced remote work revolution may last long after stay-at-home orders are lifted, leading to a permanent change in how we work.


Here’s the rub: this remote work scenario can play out in two ways. It can help the gender wage gap, or it can hurt it, depending on how it is approached.


Scenario 1: Remote Work Widens the Gender Pay Gap


After 2020, we see that work will never be quite the same. Once reserved for an elite few, remote work is now familiar to a large part of the white-collar working economy. Slowly, some people will start returning to the office, while others will continue working from home. A critical question arises: will employees who choose to return to a centralized office be favoured over those who choose to continue working from home?


Many people believe that women will likely suffer from increased wage gaps with remote work. Why? Because there is still a premium on face time at the office. Remote work may become acceptable, but that doesn’t mean it will be embraced or rewarded. The parenthood tax may be steep for women who need flexibility in hours or accommodations in locations of work. Promotions, key assignments, and growth opportunities could go to those who have the flexibility to be seen daily. Your decision to work from home could cost you, regardless of the value you add to the company.


Scenario 2: Remote Work Helps Close the Gender Pay Gap


Remote work is a new way of life. Is there an unprecedented opportunity to close the gender pay gap? Possibly.


For the optimists among us, consider this: more and more companies have realized that on-site work is not critical to success. Facetime matters less than work product. Hours matter less than results. The stigma of remote work starts to vanish as organizations see that remote workers are often more engaged, less stressed, and more productive.


The era of pandemic based remote work teaches us that we don’t have to see people to trust them. We can operate in an increasingly distributed workforce and let people work from anywhere. It’s less expensive from an organizational standpoint because we save on office space. We have less turnover because employees can finally balance their work and family responsibilities, instead of being forced to choose one or the other.


The playing field is finally, finally, more level.


Where do We Go From Here?


Remote work may widen the gender pay gap, or it may help narrow it. Time will tell. We know that no matter where employees are working from, the pay gap persists. Late last year, the World Economic Forum said pay parity is still 257 years away.


So what can we do about it? Here are some action steps your organization can take right now:


Recognize and address bias through your policies and programs. Unconscious bias seeps into recruiting, hiring, performance reviews, pay increases, and promotions. Review and revise company policies and processes to address biases.


A. Pay Transparency: Pay transparency is how companies share information about pay practices and decision making with employees. Pay transparency encourages companies to use consistent, objective, and data-driven approaches to compensation, raises, and promotions. Pay transparency lets organizations take ownership: if they’re doing well, they can celebrate that fact. And if they have work to do, they can garner trust by laying out a solid plan of what they plan to change, when, and how.


B. Improve policies and practices around remote work. Companies have an unprecedented opportunity to update their policies and practices around how people work. Empowering employees with autonomy around where and how they work can increase engagement, productivity, and retention. Companies can focus on training and coaching management teams on best practices for collaborating and communicating with their remote team members and keeping remote team members abreast of sponsorship and growth opportunities within the organization.


Conclusion

Feeling valued is a huge part of the inclusion equation. How would any one of us feel knowing that our gender was the reason we were being paid less? The pandemic has been a truly stressful and heartbreaking experience for all of us, but there may be a silver lining, however small, in all of this: maybe the new norm of work can be used to level the playing field for all of us.


In 2021, Equal Pay Day falls on April 13, 2021. Maybe one day, I can stop reminding people of the “holiday”. Maybe one day, it will cease to exist.



Written by Guest Writer Anjali Patel


Anjali Patel is CEO of Sweatours, a diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing consultancy focused on unleashing cultures of global connection. Patel is a seasoned speaker, regularly keynoting at industry conferences, organizations, TEDx, and Google StartUp Grind. Anjali was also Editor-at-Large for Arianna Huffington’s Overcoming Lawyer Burnout and has received national media attention for her work. In addition to writing Humanity at Work, Anjali is a lawyer, military wife, and mom of 3 kids and a dog. She spends her free time running away from mosquitoes and pretending to cook.


To learn more about Anjali’s speaking, book, or consulting, visit https://www.sweatours.com