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What Buffer’s Gender Pay Gap Can Tell Us About Unconscious Bias

Topics: Data & Research

Pay transparency is supposed to help companies close the gender pay gap. By being open about their compensation philosophy, sometimes to the point of posting employee salaries for everyone to see, decision-makers hope to catch pay inequities before they become entrenched. Buffer, the social media management tool provider, is one of the companies that’s most publicly committed to transparency, publishing not only their salary formula, but a public spreadsheet of every salary at the company, from the CEO on down – which is why the company was taken aback to discover that female employees make less than males.

glass ceiling 

(Photo Credit: Hernan Pinera/Flickr)

“We were surprised,” Courtney Seiter, who is charge of inclusivity at Buffer, told The Huffington Post. “We’ve had transparent salaries for two and half years, we put out so much data that it never occurred to us to analyze it [for gender] until recently.”

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Buffer’s salary formula is:

salary = [job type] X [seniority] X [experience] + [location] (+ $10,000 if salary choice)

Job types have different base pays, so a happiness hero (roughly, customer service) has a $45,000 base pay, while an engineer has a $60,000 base pay. Seniority and experience increase pay, while location will boost pay for those who live in more expensive areas like New York and San Francisco. Employees who choose salary over equity get a $10,000 bump.

Women Earn Less Than Men

The average annual salary for men at Buffer is $98,705. For women, it’s $89,205. There are also fewer female employees than male (29.6 percent vs. 70.4 percent), which is typical for tech companies. PayScale’s research shows that only 30 percent of the tech industry as a whole is female.

Although women out-earn men in customer service roles ($75,064 average for women, compared to $70,875 average for men) men make higher average salaries in development jobs ($106,720 for men, $103,269 for women). The vast majority of Buffer’s engineers, among the highest paying non-executive roles, are men. That’s also pretty typical: PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap, shows that nationwide, in all industries, men tend to have higher-paying roles, while women have lower-paying ones.

Why Does Buffer Still Have a Gap?

Job choice is one of the reasons for the gap proposed by Seiter in her conversation with Huffpost. Seiter says that male employees are both more likely to work as developers at Buffer, and more likely to be an early employee, which adds to their salary in the form of a 5 percent per year “loyalty increase.”

But the toughest part of the gap to close might just be the “experience level” part of its salary formula, which classifies employees’ experience as intermediate, advanced, or master.

“The only area where we haven’t licked unconscious bias is in assessing experience level,” she said. “We don’t have a hard and fast criteria.”

Unconscious bias is a challenge for any company hoping to close the gender pay gap, but tech companies might have a tougher time than most, because of preconceived notions about women in technical roles. For instance, researchers at California Polytechnic State University recently found that female coders’ submissions received higher approval ratings on GitHub – provided users didn’t know they were female. When the coders specified their gender on their user profiles, their acceptance rate fell by over 16 percentage points.

Buffer’s salary gap tells us that even pay transparency might not be enough to beat unconscious bias – at least, not on its own. It remains to be seen if Buffer can crack the experience level problem and whether the gap will close as a result.

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What’s your take on the gender pay gap? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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