A simple test could fix the wage gap between men and women

Despite the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, wage gaps persist between men and women.
Despite the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, wage gaps persist between men and women.
Image: Getty Images/Mark Wilson
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By now, we have decades of reports on gender discrimination in academia, yet cumulative evidence of bias has still not translated into  a changed experience for women in the workforce. The latest came on March 19 with the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) annual wage gap analysis, illustrating that a pay inequity of almost 25% between men and women still persists. And today the group is urging President Barack Obama and Congress to take action as part of Equal Pay Day.

In the meantime, a recent study from Yale finds that, when faced with the same applications for a lab position, academic scientists—of both genders—came to different conclusions about a candidate’s competence, depending on whether the applicant was listed as male or female.

The Yale paper makes it painfully clear that both women and men are capable of bias in making judgments about competence and worth. It is probably too much to expect that gender stereotypes, endlessly reinforced in media of all kinds, would only impact boys.  Yet, there is a significant distinction between societal recognition that gender discrimination endures, and individual self-awareness that one is capable of being a vector for it.

Gender neutralized employment applications and compensation paperwork are not a practical answer to this dilemma; employment history, references, published work, summaries of accomplishments, all of these require identities to be revealed. Yet, we cannot afford to wait for perceptions of women to change in order to have equitable employment and pay decisions.

Here is a proposal: Human resources departments and equal opportunity/affirmative action offices in companies and academic institutions already oversee hiring. Employees who make hiring and compensation decisions should be required—for internal use only— to take the kind of test that the Yale researchers used, modified as appropriate to the job at hand. In other words, someone in the position of deciding to hire or determine salaries should be asked to go through a “dry run,” with the goal of increasing the chance that gender bias will not be an issue when real decisions are made. A confidential discussion of the results could occur before review of an applicant pool, or in advance of an employee’s initial responsibility for compensation decisions.

This proposal is simple, cheap, does not mandate lengthy training and involves no legislation. Were it to be initiated by larger institutions it might well percolate through to smaller organizations. If we can bring awareness of gender stereotyping to the forefront of the decision-making process in a concrete way, it could shift bias from the realm of the unconscious to that of the conscious. There, it would be easier to change.

It is difficult to imagine that Americans today would accept inequitable educational opportunities for women students. However, education is just the first step;  we should expect our daughters to have the same career potential as our sons.