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Truth-telling with Dr. C. Nicole Mason: The Past, Present & Future of Pay Equity & Policy

, |By Jason White

June 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act, and if we’ve learned anything during these past six decades, it’s that getting to pay equity requires more than time and patience. It requires dedicated activism and leadership, qualities that are embodied by Dr. C. Nicole Mason, our guest for Episode 41 of the High Growth Matters podcast.

Selected as one of Fortune magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2021, Dr.Mason’s research and work has influenced policy outcomes and public attitudes at the intersection of race, class, and gender for over two decades. The author, columnist, and Georgetown lecturer joined us to truth-tell about the state of pay equity, women in the workplace, and policy — as well as about the topic of her second book, which she’s currently writing.

Adapted from our podcast conversation, this article covers:

  • What supporting women in the workforce really looks like;
  • The truth about what’s required to bring about change (and how pay transparency plays a role); and
  • The forward-looking policies and tools necessary to take us there.

To hear the full episode, visit Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

What supporting women in the workforce really looks like

Sixty years after the signing of the Equal Pay Act,pay gaps are still the norm across all industries, and leaders worldwide are quick to make excuses. Common excuses often center around women’s competency at certain roles, their ineffectiveness at negotiating pay, and/or how women choose to leave the workforce for various amounts of time throughout their careers.

According to Dr. Mason, these aren’t adequate excuses for perpetuating inequalities, nor are they accurate. “It’s not about women off ramping in our careers or negotiating effectively because even when we hold those things consistent the pay gap still persists,” Dr. Mason explains.

“Women have made gains educationally and professionally,” she says. “We know that women can successfully run Fortune 500 companies. We’re super competent, but the pay gap still persists.”

If that is the case, what’s holding society back from rewarding equal pay for equal work?

Dr. Mason argues, "it has to do with structural and institutional barriers that impact women's access to opportunities, as well as the role bias plays when setting pay.” When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that if we want to find real and lasting solutions, we must turn our attention away from encouraging women to fix the broken system on their own, and put the onus back on employers.

One way employers can step up? Start by offering actual choices.

During the pandemic, many women were faced with tough employment decisions as caretaking responsibilities skyrocketed and social support systems diminished. Given this new reality, many women had no choice but to leave the workforce or cut back significantly on their hours or roles.

“They say women leave the workforce voluntarily,” explains Dr. Mason “but if your workplace isn't flexible or isn’t set up in a way that helps women thrive in their careers and their outside work life, you really aren't giving women choices.”

Supporting women in the workplace, therefore, requires employers to address structural foundations within organizations to ensure processes are rebuilt with a woman’s experiences and perspectives in mind. To have equity, women need real choices — and those choices shouldn’t come with pay inequities.

The truth about what change requires (and how pay transparency plays a role)

If the only prerequisite for change was time and patience, women and underserved populations would have experienced the benefits of equity long ago. In reality, we know change isn’t something that just happens, and the waiting game will get the modern workforce no closer to pay equity.

For decades, activists have been pushing for legislative and policy reform. The result? The pay gap has closed by only 20 cents in 50 years and has remained relatively stable over the last 20 years.

This incremental progress proves current efforts aren’t enough.

“In order to accelerate progress, we need new strategies and tactics,” Dr. Mason says. “The old way of thinking is just not getting us where we want.”

While progress has been slow, there are a few things that have pushed the workforce forward, including the passage of new pay transparency laws.

“Pay transparency laws have been incredibly effective at helping companies understand the gender pay gap and pay equity in general,” says Dr. Mason, who cites laws banning the practice of asking about previous salary history and those that require the posting of salary ranges in job listings as two of the most impactful new regulations. 

While the laws themselves are a step in the right direction, they also often require organizations to begin communicating about pay in ways they might not have previously done before. Since managers are usually on the frontlines of questions related to compensation, employers should invest time in training managers on how to have potentially difficult conversations around pay with their teams.

The future of policy and tools necessary to take us there

According to Dr. Mason, one of the most important tools in creating better transparency that lends to equitable practices is establishing clear pay schemes. Employees and applicants shouldn’t just be provided with a base salary band. Instead, clearly defined pay frameworks - or a compensation philosophy - should be offered, explained, and defended if need be.

“Compensation schemes that are very clear are necessary so that employers and employees understand how people are paid based on their educational background, role and title,” Dr. Mason says. “When you understand how everyone's being compensated, you democratize pay.”

This democratization of compensation doesn’t take power away from companies — it levels the playing field and creates an environment where the best talent can be recruited while also protecting the bottom line. Additionally, with clearly defined pay schemes, there’s less room for negotiation — ultimately minimizing the opportunity for negotiation bias, which traditionally impacts women and people of color the most.

Achieving pay equity requires intentionality and persistence, and according to Dr. Mason, “radical imagination to think about new approaches to solve seemingly impenetrable problems.” The good news is that new tools and strategies are out there, and it’s never been easier for organizations to begin this work.

Did you enjoy the content? Listen to the full High Growth Matters episode.