Crossing the Chasm – Notes From the Edge of the Gender Pay Gap

Published on November 25, 2020

The day my CEO called me into his office several weeks following the birth of his first child was the moment that the wheels of change started turning in earnest at our company.  He was struck by the divergent experience his wife was having returning to the workforce and navigating not only the stubborn social stigmas of being a working mom, but the lost compensation experience due to having taken maternity leave. Humbled by his own shortcomings regarding gender equality, he asked me to examine this issue within our own rapidly expanding organization.

And it wasn’t just a question of addressing the well-known issue of how far behind new mothers can fall in terms of wage parity – it was also a matter of delving into the issue of overall gender parity, including pay.

As soon as he left, I was surprised to realize that – as the head of People & Culture  at Unbounce, and as a woman – I actually didn’t know whether women at our company were having a similar divergent experience when it came to pay. The thought of moving forward filled me with fear. What if we overturn the rock and don’t like what we find? What if we mobilize to ensure pay parity and face-plant? Could getting this wrong ruin our company’s reputation? While I was skeptical that an organization such as ours could have a pay parity problem, I knew I needed to check.

While most companies are aware that the pay gap exists, and support closing it, many either don’t think the problem afflicts their own organizations, or lack the time and resources to investigate the issue. Adding to this, should a disparity be discovered, a new and imposing anxiety emerges: that same straight-up fear I myself experienced – fear of trying to do the right thing, but getting it wrong.

This fear is real and profound and perfectly understandable. Gender equality is an extremely sensitive topic. As societal awareness of inequality has increased, even casual conversations can get heated very fast. Having worked at a company that has addressed pay parity and come out the other side a much stronger and more equitable organization, I can attest that you will absolutely get some things wrong. Getting things wrong, uncovering deficiencies, intense dialogue, experimenting with multiple approaches and outcomes, and making sacrifices, are all part and parcel of effecting change. Real, lasting change doesn’t usually arise out of anything less. 

But change is urgently needed. As with so many chronic social imbalances, COVID-19 has brought gender inequalities into stark relief. A recent McKinsey Report notes that because “women are disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected by [COVID-19]” – filling over half of food service and accommodations positions, and three-quarters of unpaid-care work (e.g., child and elderly care) – they are twice as vulnerable to the current crisis.

 In such a precarious moment, pay parity offers multiple advantages. Not only are the financial benefits of parity “six to eight times higher than the…spending required,” but parity improves profitability upwards of 25%, stabilizes credit ratings and borrowing costs, and has an overall economic impact in the trillions of dollars. While COVID-19 didn’t create gender disparities, it has freshly illuminated the enormous costs of treading water. The time to act is now. 

 The good news is that the tech sector is uniquely positioned to spearhead change. It’s in its DNA to disrupt the status quo; to challenge and change perceptions of the possible. Its evolving ethics and approaches, its nimbleness and flexibility, are as beneficial to workplace culture – dress codes, office configuration, free-roaming canines – as they are to pursuing social equality and inclusiveness. 

 Plus, by becoming the change we crave, what initially seem like sacrifices are transformed into turns of a virtuous cycle. In one notable instance I was involved in, a woman candidate was interviewed for an engineering position, and she negotiated a salary that was significantly less than what others had historically been  paid in that role. Though what is a busy and rapidly expanding company could easily  have hired another junior employee with the difference, she was offered the higher salary. The message to the team was unequivocal: Put your money where your mouth is. By taking care of each other, by ensuring every voice is valued, our people can be inspired to take care of each other and our customers in kind. That dedication ultimately drives revenue and attracts talent. The most coveted candidates in our fiercely competitive talent pool, after all, want to work for companies that not only reflect their personal values, but put those values into action. 

 Progress isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon – one that gets longer the more you run. Pay parity can inspire us to look beyond gender, and lay the bedrock for addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion more broadly. We’re now so passionate about change that we translated our learning curve into a twelve-point plan that can be adopted and adapted by other companies in search of solutions, alongside a pledge to prioritize pay parity. This process isn’t  simple, or easy, nor is it complete, but in overcoming the fear of all the various ways of getting it wrong, an opportunity to discover all the many ways of getting  it right can be created.

Leslie Collin is a contributor to Grit Daily. She is VP of People and Culture at Unbounce, where she leads people strategies, social impact, D&I initiatives, and workplace culture. As a member of the company’s executive team since 2014, Leslie has navigated the challenges of Unbounce’s rapid growth, seeing the business scale from 40 employees to nearly 200 across Canada and into Europe, with an eye to a further 100 employees or so in the coming year. Committed to championing diversity and inclusion across Canada’s technology sector, Leslie was pivotal in Unbounce’s workforce reaching gender parity in 2019 after taking the Minerva Foundation pledge three years earlier. In 2018, Leslie was a finalist for YWCA’s Women of Distinction Award due in part to her support for the empowerment and advancement of women leaders and people-first organizational best practices.

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