Fixing An Overlooked Element Of The Gender Pay Gap

Bias against those in caretaker roles could be a hidden element of the pay gap, but one that can be fixed.

Fixing An Overlooked Element Of The Gender Pay Gap
[Photo: via Flickr user Images Money]

The gender pay gap has been getting more attention in recent months, but the gender gap has always been an issue, and I’ve seen it first-hand in the advertising industry. Our business has long had a diversity problem, and while the numbers of female creative directors are climbing from as low as 3% a few years ago to 11.5% now, a wide gap on the leadership level still exists. Women aren’t reaching the top of their profession, which means they aren’t reaching the top pay levels either.


I’m as troubled as anyone is by pay inequity, but a recent study has changed the way I view the root of the problem. Rather than assuming that the pay gap between men and women is gender discrimination alone, I now see that this inequity is also a caretaker bias. To counter it, I suggest we compensate rather than penalize women for their lifestyle choices.

The White House estimates that women are paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. The gap is even greater for African Americans (64 cents on the dollar) and Latina women (56 cents on the dollar). None of this is new, but when I learned that gay men face a similar pay gap, I was a bit taken aback. Does the apparent assumption that gay men will take on caretaking roles, and therefore need more leave, factor into that pay gap?

This made me wonder whether pay inequity could be linked to the fact that 39% of mothers have taken a significant amount of time off from work to care for family versus less than one-quarter of fathers (according to the Pew Research Center). And could the fact that straight women receive lower wages than lesbian women reflect an unconscious belief among corporate leadership that lesbian women are less likely to serve as caretakers?

The gender pay gap has long been linked to our tendency to attach less value to women’s jobs and contributions. But if the pay gap also reflects an employer-held belief that heterosexual women are more likely to take on a higher proportion of child-rearing duties, we can counter with a combination of support from leadership and men, more equitable distribution of caretaking duties, and smarter solutions.

Make it a Business Issue

The gender gap on the leadership level is a huge problem. Without women on boards and in management positions “the same pool of men is making decisions for promotion,” says Nancy Mellard, the national leader of CBIZ Women’s Advantage, a program that directs the development of women professionals.

Business leaders must start looking at these relatively small caretaking leaves as a necessary part of hiring a diverse and effective workforce, and make building that a top business imperative. It really is good for business: the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014 highlighted a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic performance.


Once business leaders understand that women-led companies perform three times better than their male counterparts, maybe salaries will begin to equalize.

Make Everyone an Activist

How else can leadership (which currently resides largely with men) help turn the tide to economic and social equality for women? Consider the UN Women’s #HeForShe, a global effort to engage one billion men and boys in the achievement of gender equality in cooperation with organizations like Unilever and JP Morgan Chase. But C-level executives should go beyond joining #HeForShe and invest in mentorship, establish KPIs and make a business commitment to promoting and paying a prescribed number of women in their organizations equally as part of their performance reviews. The same goes for board appointments.

More Men As Caretakers

While the number of men choosing to be stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989, women are still doing twice the elder care. Let’s make caretaking an equal opportunity affair so that women can be more focused at work and men can receive more time and support for caretaking. I suspect the closer we can get to narrowing those caretaking stats, the closer we can get the pay levels.

Try New Solutions

Many great organizations and legislators are fighting to level the playing field. But in order to drive bigger changes, I believe that we should disproportionately reward those who leave the workforce for caretaking in order to guarantee a spot in an appropriate position with pay that is equal to peers when they return. Whether that compensation arrives via grants, paid company leave, more help with childcare on a federal level, or changes to the Family Leave Act, we must do more to support those women, and men, taking on caretaker roles.

This caretaking question is especially important to explore as 89 million millennials enter the job market. What is interesting about today’s young adult women is that they are the first in modern history to start their work lives at near parity with men. How can we keep that parity as the reality of childcare costs and actual family responsibilities set in?

And as millions of middle-aged workers face the task of caring for their own aging parents, let’s make sure that careers are not harmed in the process. Without a strong generation before them, young up-and-coming talent won’t be as successful as our future leaders. All indicators point to a long road to women being paid the same as men, no matter the root cause of the inequity, and catching up will require some disproportionate measures that compensate those who have long been under compensated.


Laurel Rossi is president of Havas Worldwide Strat Farm, a strategic advertising and communications agency that helps world-class brands advance human progress. She’s also the chair of the board of directors of The Advertising Club of New York, the industry’s leading organization that provides members with access to thought leaders, the fuel for creativity, greater diversity, and the best training for professional development. Follow Laurel on Twitter: @laurel_rossi