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Career Progression: The Missing Link From Pay Equity Conversations

Pay equity is a hot topic in 2019. However, the focus of most conversations and recent legislation such as the PayCheck Fairness Act is still centered around this concept of “equal pay for equal work.” While we agree it is imperative for organizations to ensure men and women doing the same job (or substantially similar jobs) are paid the same, to truly eradicate the gender wage gap, there is something else we need to talk about as well.

One of the biggest reasons the unadjusted pay gap is 79 cents on the dollar in 2019 is because women experience discrimination when it comes to access to the best jobs in the labor market. The jobs with the highest compensation, including STEM jobs and leadership roles, are disproportionately going to white men. We call this uneven access to high-paying jobs in the labor market the opportunity gap.

In PayScale’s Gender Pay Gap Report, we found roughly an equal percentage of men and women start their careers as individual contributors. However, by mid-career (age range 30-44), 47 percent of men are managers or higher, while only 40 percent of women reach this level. By late career (age 45+), 57 percent of men are managers or higher, while only 41 percent of women reach this level. By late career (age 45+), eight percent of men have risen to an executive level position, compared to three percent of women.

The real key to closing the large wage gaps is ensuring executive teams, boardrooms and certain job families become more reflective of the demographics of the overall labor market.

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To make swifter progress, we need to shift the conversation from “equal pay for equal work” to one about career progression. We need to brainstorm and identify ways for organizations and individuals to close these opportunity gaps.

For PayScale’s third annual Equal Pay Day event, we had a breakout session around career progression. The focus for this discussion was: how do we increase career velocity for women and people of color?

About a dozen HR, compensation and business professionals shared their challenges and ideas around this issue. This session was facilitated by Ruchika Tulshyan, an award-winning author, journalist and inclusion strategist. Ruchika is the CEO at Candour, a company that advises global organizations on creating equitable workplaces with an intersectional and data-driven approach. She is also the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace.

Below is a summary of the key learnings from this conversation.

1. Define the levels


Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

One of the key barriers workers experience when it comes to advancing in the workplace is they don’t know what it takes to get to the next level. Most organizations have unspoken rules about what it takes to advance within an organization. When an organization does not publicize the “rules of the game,” it disadvantages employees who do not have strong relationships with influential leaders within the organization. These less-connected employee populations typically consist of women and people of color.  

To solve this problem, organizations should take the time to fully define what it means to be a contributor at each level within the firm. What does it mean to be a manager, a director or a vice president within an organization? A leveling guide should detail the scope of each role, the depth and breadth of experience needed to be at a certain level and typical deliverables.

When an organization publishes this information, it’s easier for women and workers of color to assess their own readiness for these positions and apply for upward positions. The more specific you can be with your levels, the easier it is for individuals to understand how to get from point A to point B.

2. Institutionalize sponsorship program

What is a sponsor? A sponsor is synonymous with a champion. A sponsor is someone who advocates for you in and out of your workplace. This person is in a position of power within an organization; they are willing to use their influence and political capital to publicly advocate for you. The sponsor gives you air cover to take risks, connects you to other high-profile individuals within an organization and offers constructive feedback to help you become aware of your blind spots. You, in turn, deliver results for your sponsor.

For nearly a decade, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) has studied the effects of sponsorships on career progression. The CTI’s data confirms effective sponsorship has an invaluable impact on the engagement, retention and advancement of diverse talent.

Not every employee has equal access to champions in an organization. Studies have shown that women are over-mentored but under-sponsored.  

When an organization doesn’t institutionalize sponsorships, what happens is three out of four times a senior leader picks a protege who looks them (white men choose white men).    

If you don’t institutionalize sponsorship, those staffing decisions get made in a way that’s not very transparent—over a dinner or other activities.  

On the other hand, when you institutionalize sponsorships, you put skin in the game and ensure leaders are sponsoring effectively and being held accountable for results (e.g. promotions of diverse employees).  

How do you institutionalize a championship or sponsorship program? It involves the following steps, including:

  • Talk to senior leadership to get their buy-in and support for the program.
  • Identify individuals within your organization who are in a position to act as sponsors. You may need senior leaders to personally recruit the sponsors for this program. On the protégé side, you should make signing up as easy as possible.
  • Educate potential sponsors on how to effectively sponsor others.
  • Educate protégés on best practices around finding and keeping a sponsor, and how to leverage their existing sponsor relationship. Educate both parties on the expectations for this type of relationship.
  • Create events and opportunities where potential sponsors and protégés can get to know each other and make organic connections.
  • Set metrics to keep the sponsors accountable for results, such as promotions they influenced.  
  • Use compensation to hold sponsors accountable. For example, tie a portion of sponsors’ variable compensation to results (e.g. diverse employees getting promotions).  
  • Implement surveys to gauge the experience of protégés and champions in the program, to make ongoing improvements.   

When you have an effective champion program, you can ensure key voices are heard and all employees are considered for key projects.

3. Hire an in-house people/career coach to be a resource for employees

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According to the International Coach Federation, a coach is a trained professional who partners with an employee in a thought-provoking and creative process that maximizes their personal and professional potential.

At a basic level, coaching can help employees build valuable skills and knowledge they can use to advance their careers. A coach can give employees expert advice on pivoting to new roles or applying for a promotion. One organization in attendance at our Equal Pay Day had a fantastic career coach. This organization saw a lot of underrepresented people seek her out to get advice and, within three to four months, apply for open positions.

In turn, your firm benefits by having more capable employees who can take leadership roles as the firm grows. Coaching also helps you get ahead of costly and time-consuming performance issues.

4. Train managers around hiring processes

Because managers are responsible for hiring, they have more influence on the diversity of your organization than anyone else. If you want your organization to have an employee population reflective of the overall U.S. population, it’s important to train managers around hiring processes. For example, it’s important to ensure managers are using a standard interview rubric, so all candidates are evaluated the same way. For more information on how to standardize your interview questions, check out this article from Harvard Business Review.

Additionally, consider implementing a blind hiring program where you remove all personal and demographic information from the hiring process so hiring managers can assess candidates based on ability alone. Workable has a great guide on how to build a blind hiring program.  

Technology can be a great aid to help you catch biases and make course corrections. For example, here at PayScale, we use Textio to analyze our job postings to gauge whether the language may be off-putting to certain candidates. This allows us to catch language issues and make updates before we post a job to ensure that it’s appealing to a wide range of candidates.

Want more content on how you can accelerate progress towards pay equity and equal opportunities at your workplace?

We’ll be posting more tactics, tips and takeaways from our Equal Pay Day event over the next couple of weeks. To get the latest content, subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.

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Do you have ideas about how organizations can improve promotion velocity for women and other underrepresented employee populations? Share these ideas with us below in the comments or on Twitter.


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