Diversity Insight

Women at work: Exploring pay equity, making work and life mesh, and HR’s role

Nobody expects climbing the corporate ladder and earning a top-tier paycheck to be easy for anybody. But an array of statistics shows that fewer women than men get to the top rungs and that accounts for part of the reason women earn less.  Portrait of modern graphic designer woman

Statistics showing that women make up half the workforce without achieving half the top-level positions spark at least three important questions for employers and their human resources professionals: Why are women not making it to the corner office, how can the pay gap be addressed, and should HR be doing more?

The numbers can be calculated for various results, but a commonly reported statistic says that in 2013, women earned an average of 78 cents for every dollar men earned. The gender wage gap is attributed to various factorswomen often work in lower-paid professions, women may be more likely to work part time, women often step back or drop out of the workforce because of competing family pressuresbut no matter the cause, the gap exists.

More than money, though, contributes to frustration among women wage earners. The pressure to balance work and personal lives also leads to stress, stress that one woman who has made it to the corner office says can be eased with a new approach.

Integration, not balance

Teresa A. Taylor, CEO of business consulting firm Blue Valley Advisors, is the author of The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work/Life Success. “My approach is to integrate work and family life,” the former COO of Fortune 200 firm Qwest, says. Her motivation for writing the book was to keep women in the workforce by letting them know they can get through the tough times without giving up career opportunities.

Rather than chasing the elusive work-life balance goal society touts, Taylor encourages women to combine the various parts of their lives. She advises women to combine their work and personal calendars and live life “as one full day all blended together.”

“When you try to separate your life, you feel unbalanced,” Taylor says. “Integrating and blending works much better.” That means a working woman may take a personal call during the workday and then do some work at night. Or she may invite clients to include their children in a work dinner while also bringing hers. She wants women to stop saying they feel unbalanced. “Balance implies an equation that has to be equalized. I don’t think that’s what life is.”

Too often, Taylor says, women think “they have to have a secret sauce and in fact they don’t.” They can integrate the various parts of their life without having to separate work from personal life and feeling they’re giving short shrift to one or the other.

While both women and men sometimes worry that they’re slaves to the technology associated with work, Taylor says it actually can be helpful since it provides flexibility. Employees can be out of the office tending to other things and still be connected. They just need to know when to turn it off.

“It’s more of an issue of focusing,” Taylor says. People can blend the various parts of their life and still have focus points. For example, she says, people shouldn’t be on the phone during dinner, and shouldn’t feel compelled to answer every notification immediately. “I’m not a person who sleeps by my phone,” she says.

“I think technology is fantastic,” Taylor says. “You just need to know how to manage it.” She’s a fan of the do-not-disturb feature on her smartphone, and she puts someone else in charge when she’s on vacation.

Why the pay gap?

Taylor says a lack of confidence holds too many women back. Too often they earn less than men and think they don’t deserve more. She says it’s women’s responsibility to negotiate up front for fair pay because “once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out.” But HR also should play a role, she says.

Over the course of her career, Taylor says she’s worked with great HR people who made her aware of pay inequities so she could work on resolving them. She said when she ran big corporate divisions, she didn’t know what people were getting paid until HR brought the numbers to her attention.

“They are the only ones who see all those statistics, those salaries, those charts,” Taylor says. She was happy to fix problems once she knew they existed. “It took a really good HR person to bring the data.”

Policies vs. culture

HR often tries to take a policy approach to address the pay gap and keep women in the workforce, but Taylor says “it’s about culture more than policies.” She says she’s seen policies work against the goals employers have in mind because they’re too formulaic. She advocates a different enviornment.

“We don’t need more rules,” Taylor says. Changing the workplace culture to be more inclusive is more challenging than writing policies but more effective.

Where should HR start? Listen to employees and treat them like customers, Taylor says. “Seek out and listen to your own employees. I mean really listen. Take the time and explore and walk in their shoes for a little bit.”