Ways to reduce the gender pay gap

The issue is becoming ever more critical as the profession aims to increase diversity in its ranks.
By Dawn Wotapka

Whether in Hollywood, sports, or plain old offices, there’s recently been plenty of new attention to the national gender pay gap. And the accounting profession isn’t immune to the issue: In 2015, women in the accounting and auditing field faced a 26.5% pay gap, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are different potential causes of the gap. Women, who are often tasked as caretakers for young children and older parents, may have more difficulty obtaining elite jobs that require long hours and travel. Career women often give birth to and raise young children during the same time period that CPAs typically earn their stripes as partners. That likely contributes to the fact that a scant 24% of accounting partners are female, according to AICPA research.

Accounting also remains a male-dominated field thanks in part to informal recruiting networks—i.e., men often recommend their buddies for open jobs. And when women can get in the door, they’re less likely to negotiate for salaries, weighing on current and future incomes. This results in women being the minority in executive suites and prominent positions nationwide.

The issue hasn’t always received a lot of attention. But it is becoming ever more critical as the profession looks to increase diversity in its ranks.

“It’s important for organizations to ensure that gender equity is a core part of their pay philosophy,” said Gail Greenfield, principal in the talent business at HR consulting powerhouse Mercer in Washington, D.C. “That might seem somewhat obvious, but it’s not always the case.”

Many employers agree and are working harder than ever to whittle away at this disparity. Here are some ideas that your organization can use to help:

Start early: More companies are finding ways to reduce bias before it even starts, such as by hiding names on electronic résumés. At inDinero, a software and accounting services firm that employs dozens of accountants, hiring managers can use LinkedIn and other social media sites to check out applicants. But there’s an option for recruiting managers to hide photos and focus on objective criteria, said Sarah Olbekson, inDinero’s head of talent. “That can be really helpful,” she said.

Forget the past: There’s a growing push to erase the classic “how much are you paid?” question from the hiring process. That’s because women often earn less than their male counterparts, and, if their pay is determined by their past salary, pay disparities can follow them to their new employers. Another way asking about salary can hurt women is that they typically negotiate for salaries less often than men do and request 30% less than men for the same position, said Katie Donovan, a salary coach and founder of Equal Pay Negotiations LLC.

“The game of hiring is to get the best employee for the least amount of money. The problem with that game is it favors white men over 6 feet tall,” Donovan said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Standardize salaries: Another way to even the playing field is to give each position a set pay rate based on title and location. Employers can then add a set amount to this base salary for such variables as years of experience, advanced degrees, and certifications, Greenfield said.

Reexamine referrals: Donovan also suggested that companies overhaul referral programs that reward employees for helping HR find well-qualified candidates. Workers usually suggest friends of the same sex, which does little to balance gender diversity, especially at the top ranks.

“Like circles hang out with like circles,” Donovan said. She also observed that candidates recommended by senior executives often have a good chance of getting hired (“No one wants to say no to the boss”), which can hinder gender diversity if most of a company’s senior executives are male.

Rethink reviews: Once employees are hired, companies should also help develop women to ensure they’re able to obtain raises and promotions at the same level as men. Donovan urged companies to pay careful attention to performance reviews.

Bias can creep up in the way that feedback is worded differently for men and women. The same behaviors and characteristics that are praised and rewarded for men can be detrimental when used to describe a woman. For example, in some environments it is acceptable for a man to be abrasive, direct, and a go-getter, while that may not be praise for a woman. “Women get personality dings all the time,” Donovan said. “My favorite new one is ‘too passionate.’ Passionate is now ‘You’re troublesome.’”

Help women advance: Mentoring and sponsoring women—and reminding them to show confidence in a male-dominated field—is a great way for employers to develop talent. Kristen Rampe, CPA, who spent a decade in public practice and is now a CPA firm consultant, said her early experience in accounting was positive, in part, because a senior male partner helped sponsor her. “The sponsor is the person who is an active promoter of you at the organization,” she said. “They’re singing your praises in management meetings. They’re angling for you to get onto better projects.”

Male mentors, meanwhile, need insight into a woman’s needs to help them deeply invest in her career and to help connect in the same way they would with another male. Men should be taught to engage in gender differences with respect and competence. Rampe suggested that performance metrics reward partners and other senior leaders for helping women with career development.

Be flexible: Employers could also ramp up their acceptance of flexible time and not hold it against employees (more often women) who use it.

At inDinero, no one punches a time clock and employees are welcome to adjust their schedules as needed. Need to take the kids to school or an elderly parent to the doctor? “If you can still get your job done, stay late or make up the time another day,” Olbekson said.

While such ideas can help narrow the pay gap, firms need to be invested in them for the long haul. “Culture change takes time,” Donovan said. “It can’t be overnight.”

Dawn Wotapka is a New York City-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, please contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA. 

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