Sometimes the better solutions are more or less obvious than the knee jerk attempt to write rules
By Dave Crisp
A recent court ruling in Ontario just has to find its way into this blog because it deals with such a critical HR topic for which we have yet to find a clear strategic answer — pay equity.
The one thing we can say for sure is "I told you so."
When pay equity was introduced, I argued the simpler way to legislate would have been to order every working woman get an immediate 20 per cent pay increase (or maybe dock men 10 per cent and boost women 10 per cent).
Of course, we would almost certainly have seen women laid off (for non-pay reasons, of course) and a typical regression toward the old status quo. It would have been interesting to see how quickly those things happened and how convoluted the justifications would have been but, sadly, it almost certainly would have been inevitable.
What we need to consider is why. It has nothing to do with skills, education, ability to contribute or any of the old arguments that used to be made. As time marches on, that much is clear.
The pay equity legislation that finally passed created a few years of work for consultants, caused compensation departments enormous paperwork, resulted in a few classes of employees having the pay scales increased (ones that were predominantly populated by women, where something like a comparable "male class" could be found or extrapolated). A close male relative of mine was a beneficiary after the government fought giving some federal librarians a scale increase retroactive for some 10 or more years since he was in a "female" classification that could be paralleled to "male" ones that had been paid more.
Now we find this effort at remedying systemic discrimination in pay scales wasn’t as well thought out as it should have been — no big surprise. It’s nearly impossible to envision all the various ways of avoiding logic. The recent ruling in Ontario, involving workers at a hospital and a school board, suggests to some jurists the law is flawed enough that a human rights challenge should succeed.
I agree with Mary Cornish, a pay equity law specialist who represented two union locals in the case, that the ruling is outrageous in effect, though I suspect the judges felt they had no choice — the wording of the legislation allows pay scales where women are paid less to start and all the way up the grid as long as the top rate is equal.
Gee, can we design a scale with 30 years of increments so we can legally pay women less for their entire careers? Almost no one would get to the top. One of the defendants in the case said they respect all employees. But this doesn't seem to include correcting unequal pay instead of fighting it — I guess justice truly is blind.
Why do we have so many women paid less that averages continue to show a very significant gap even when you factor out the effects of time off for kids, choice of industry and more? Let me venture a guess at one factor that maybe hasn’t been tabled before.
Consistently I campaign for engaging employees through more effective leadership. That means encouraging them to take risks, to put forward more innovative ideas and, above all, to listen to them, pay attention to what’s being suggested and try it out.
We’ve certainly heard for years about the common scenario that a woman will suggest an idea that’s completely ignored until a man mentions it. It rings all too true amid claims women aren’t persuasive or assertive enough (for fear of being labeled with the B-word, where a man would be seen as "manly" or standing up for what he believes in).
I’m guessing this further extends to when men threaten to leave — they are just a bit more believable and of just a bit more concern than when women might do the same. And since women are often the anchor in families, I suspect they threaten less often, too. All it takes is shades of difference in such perceptions and a gap appears in overall averages. You just can’t legislate good will or "equal concern" from bosses.
In a typical team led by command and control, defying a command and pushing an idea forward is just the sort of macho behavior men are constantly encouraged to risk and are forgiven for. Moreover I believe men are more likely to be respected and promoted for this even when the idea fails than women would be.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
It doesn’t have to be obvious or even applied in every case to shift the balance of promotions and pay rates enough to create a gap. Nothing in such behavior is planned, nor is it so consistently applied that you can correct it through rules and legislation.
But if the glacial progress in leadership behavior keeps trending toward engagement, listening and coaching as being more effective than command and control (as it inevitably will), I have to think the problem will ease eventually.
I’d rather put my time and effort into that social change than trying to fix legislation that was inevitably going to be flawed from the outset.
But I’ve been outvoted before.