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Google solved pay equity – and then broke it again

Tech giant reveals it was paying men less than women
Google pay equity
Workers move a Google logo during the opening of the new Alphabet's Google Berlin office in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 22, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Todd Humber

One of the perks – or curses, depending on your tastes – of my job is that I spend a lot of time scanning the news.

Whether it’s CBC Radio and Toronto’s 680News during my morning commute, or the countless news sites I have bookmarked on my laptop, perusing headlines and reading the news is my double-double. You just never know what you’re going to uncover.

Earlier this week, I stumbled on the following headline from the Washington Post: “Google reviewed pay equity and learned it was underpaying men.”

I had to re-read it a couple of times. Were my contacts acting up? Did I need more coffee? Did I really just read that men at Google were underpaid compared to their female counterparts?

No. No. And yes.

Google made this announcement in a very bland, very factual blog post on March 4 titled “Ensuring we pay fairly and equitably.”

No offense to its author, Lauren Barbato, who is the lead analyst for pay equity, people analytics, at Google. But the blog reads like it was written by, well, a lead analyst for pay equity, people analytics. I’ll let her tell the story:

“The 2018 analysis flagged one particularly large job code (Level 4 Software Engineer) for adjustments. Within this job code, men were flagged for adjustments because they received less discretionary funds than women.”

Which, well, hooray! Cue the balloons! We’ve solved pay equity – in fact, we’ve even overcorrected.

OK, well. We all know that ain’t true. But the Google lesson is an interesting one. Last year, the tech giant published a post featuring a giant zero. It represented the “number of statistically significant pay differences between Googlers, based on our pay equity analyses.”

In short, in 2018, following years of analytics and pay adjustments that began in 2012, Google proudly announced there were no unexplained pay differences by gender or race. The post in 2018 was equally bland and full of math, but just as fascinating. (Hey, I never said there would be no math.)

Simply put, Google was able to identify factors that should legitimately impact compensation – such as tenure, location and performance ratings and separate them from factors that should not. I.e., gender and ethnicity.

But that was so last year. Fast forward one year, and, well the system broke. It burped out a report that it was paying men less than women for the same job. So what’s the lesson?

First, equal pay for equal work is not a one-time calculation that can be fixed, freeing HR to tackle the next massive societal problem. No, it’s an ever-moving target that can be thrown off kilter by the slightest breeze.

Despite the fact Google makes managers document any changes to compensation – even if it’s just $1 – the system will never be set-it-and-forget-it.

Second, well, let’s be honest. My same morning news scan has highlighted plenty of sex-based issues at Google in the past year. Just last fall, Googlers walked out over the way female employees are treated.

“The employees are demanding several key changes in how sexual misconduct allegations are dealt with at the firm, including a call to end forced arbitration – a move which would make it possible for victims to sue,” the BBC reported on Nov. 1, 2018.

It was all spurred by allegations of sexual misconduct by Google executives — including one who received a $90 million package after he left, despite evidence of credible allegations of sexual harassment.

Keep in mind this was all months after Google bragged about the elimination of sex and race-related wage gaps. So, clearly, a paycheque is not a panacea.

We continue to make progress in the battle for equal pay for equal work. We need to celebrate the success we’re having. But as the Google lesson shows, pay equity does not come with a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Instead, it’s a fragile garden. It requires constant tending, water and weeding to ensure all workers are compensated fairly regardless of gender, race, disability and sexual orientation.

But like any garden, if you put the work in, you will be rewarded. The fruits (and vegetables) of your labour will be a loyal, engaged and productive workforce.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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