Written by Lucy Soto Tuesday, April 17 2012
It’s been nearly 50 years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, and women still aren’t receiving an equal paycheck for equal work. But now, in the age of smart phones, there might just be an app for that.
At least that’s what the U.S. Department of Labor and President Obama’s National Equal Pay Task Force are hoping. A couple of months ago, they launched the Equal Pay App Challenge. It calls on software developers to use the same technology that helps us find at-our-fingertips movie times or good restaurant deals to create innovative, easy-to-use applications that educate us about the pay gap and gives us practical tools to close it.
The winners will be announced April 17 – this year’s “Equal Pay Day.” It’s marked annually to highlight the point into a year that a woman must work to earn what a man made the previous year. The campaign was created by the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of women’s and civil rights groups, labor unions, and religious and professional associations.
Up for grabs in the Equal Pay App Challenge are five scholarships — including full tuition and housing costs — for an eight-week program in digital product innovation and entrepreneurship in New York City. A $5,000 award will be given to a winner who sells their app to a nonprofit organization that wants to broadly disseminate the technology.
The administration hopes the apps will help answer basic questions about equal pay: What's the typical salary for someone in your position? Should you be asking for more at the negotiating table? What are your fundamental legal rights? Successful apps could be anything from interactive games, social networks or data images.
Popular techie blogger Gina Trapani, co-host of Web show This Week in Google and founding editor of Lifehacker.com, jumped at the challenge earlier this month with a new website called Narrowthegapp.com. She has a healthy social media following, so she hopes taking on the app challenge will raise awareness and encourage her developer friends to dive in as well. Her witty, conversational site allows visitors to click on any range of jobs and see how the pay gap affects their profession, like this nugget: Women insurance sales agents make 67 cents to the dollar that men earn. Or this one: Women bus drivers earn 76 cents for every dollar a man gets.
She explains, “Women need an awareness of how bad the problem is on average in their occupation,” Trapani says. They need “stronger salary negotiation skills and the willingness to be the whistleblower when their or their loved one's employer is breaking the law.”
Jeff Yablon, a business consultant who writes a blog as The Answer Guy, says the reason women “still make measurably less money than men even a couple of generations after it became illegal to discriminate against women is because they’re bad negotiators.”
The market, says Yablon, president of PC-VIP, will take care of the pay gap without the help of an app. “The market has been taking care of this for 40 years. I can’t tell you the day when this number will be 98 percent. Will it, in a perfect world, be better if [the gap closes] tomorrow rather than in 35 years? You bet it will. But an app’s not going to make it happen. Negotiating is. Knowing where you stand and having the chutzpah to make it happen.”
The key, it seems, is a combination of negotiation and information.
For the average working woman, the pay gap means $150 less in her weekly paycheck, $8,000 less at the end of the year and $380,000 less over her lifetime, according to the Equal Pay Task Force. Some women who fail to negotiate their salaries at the start of their careers could leave up to $2 million on the table, says Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Women are socialized when they are young to hold back and to wait for things to be offered to them,” says Babcock, author of “Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change.”
“Women often expect that their employers are paying them fairly, so they don’t think to negotiate for more.”
Lack of information about what others are being paid is crucial, she says, because women often don’t know they are being paid less.
The U.S. Census statistics from 2010 show that women still earn 77 percent of what men earn, based on median earnings of full-time, year-round workers in 2009. When the measure is weekly earnings, that percentage is 80.
For women of color and women with disabilities, the disparity is even bigger. In 2009, the median annual earnings of African-American women were 67.5 percent of all men’s earnings, and Latinas’ earnings were 57.7 percent. Asian-American women’s earnings in 2009 were 90 percent of all men’s earnings.
All of this has huge implications on families when you consider that two-thirds of them in the U.S. rely on a mother’s wages for a significant portion of their income.
And becoming “equal” might take a while. If the wage gap continues to close at the same pace as it has for the last 50 years, according to The Institute for Women’s Policy Research statistics released in early March, it could take until 2056 for women and men’s earnings to reach pay parity.
For many women, though, it’s not that they don’t ask, it’s they don’t know what to ask for. As a result, says Harvard University researcher Hannah Riley Bowles, women set less ambitious goals and make less money. In one compensation study of graduating MBA students, she found that when salary standards were fuzzy, women accepted salaries 10 percent lower on average than men did. And when salaries were clear, there were no gender differences in compensation. The study used more than 30 control variables to account for why women might make less money than men, such as years of experience, pre-MBA salary, dual career concerns and job function.
Bowles, an associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says what women receive is sometimes based on a separate – and usually unequal – framework than men. Because men tend to be paid more than women to begin with, the informal benchmarks employers, and even job candidates, use to gauge pay are skewed at the start.
“So, when employers or candidates are searching for information on how to pay someone, they are likely - conscious or unconsciously - to come up with higher comparison standards for men than women,” Bowles says. Employers will compare a male candidate’s pay to other men’s pay in the company and a female candidate’s pay to other women’s pay. Candidates will do the same.
How can women get better at doing this? Bowles has been studying that, too. Here are a few things she found:
- Reduce ambiguity, but remember to reach outside of convenience network (e.g., talking just to girlfriends) so that you get the best information possible on what is negotiable. Don't just think about salary; negotiate for things that enhance your career potential. The trajectory of your career is likely to affect your long-term earnings more than any single raise.
- When negotiating, use "relational accounts." In short, work hard to take on the other party's perspective. Ask: How can you make your request appeal to their interests? Frame your negotiating requests in terms that make them see your request as legitimate to them and that reflect your genuine concern about organizational relationships.
For Babcock, just getting the word out that a gap exists and encouraging women to do research is reason enough to support the goals of the app challenge. “Many people believe this is a thing of the past, and it is good to remind people that it still exists.”
It’s easy to take a cyber-swim in loads of information about jobs and salary. There’s plenty available on sites such as Glassdoor.com, Simplyhired.com, Indeed.com and Guidestar.org. But the challenge hopes to go further by highlighting the pay gap and offering up tools to prepare women to negotiate.
Can an app change the world? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe just the process of throwing out the challenge – and having the debate and awareness that comes from it – will change the landscape.
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Lucy Soto worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for nearly a decade. Before that she worked for the Associated Press. Born in Medellin, Colombia, she grew up in Greenville, S.C., and now chases after her four children in Atlanta.