by Marcus Harrison Green
King County can shrink its stubborn gender wage gap, but only with an absolute commitment from local employers.
Tuesday afternoon’s inaugural Wage Gap Summit impressed that message on the more than 300 people in attendance. It also strove to commit to memory the fact that women employed in King County currently take home only 78.6 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.
The summit, a joint venture between the Women’s Funding Alliance and the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, took place in the ballroom of the Motif hotel and opened with a sobering assessment of the county’s gender wage conundrum sprinkled with a dash of good news.
Maud Daudon, President of the Seattle Metro Chamber, and Liz Vivian, President of the Women’s Funding Alliance, took to the stage after King County Executive Dow Constantine’s opening remarks.
Both took turns dispensing factoids on the county’s wage gap, mixing celebratory news of the slight narrowing of the wage gap with sobering statistics on sustained inequity within the county’s workforce.
Despite making up 50 percent of the county’s population, women’s wages are on average 20 percent less than male wages. The wage gap is more pronounced the higher a woman’s education level (nearly 30 percent for women with a bachelor’s degree or higher). There are also inequities within inequities when race is accounted for, with the average Hispanic woman making nearly $18,000 less than her white counterpart, while the average Black woman makes almost $15,000 less.
Academics at the Institute of Women’s Policy Research point to a multitude of factors for the persistent gender wage gulf, including women effectively being relegated to lower paying fields, choice of college major, implicit bias and ingrained misogyny in certain industries.
Vivian poured a dose of sugar on the data by citing a recent study also by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research revealing that the wage gap had closed, ever narrowly, by more than 2 cents from the previous year. Median yearly earnings have also increased from $50,000 to $55,000 for King County Women between 2013 and 2015, and almost 28,000 have entered the workforce during that timespan.
Vivian, speaking after her presentation, found the incremental gains encouraging but didn’t shy away from spotlighting data showing women in King County will not reach income parity until the year 2071, should the rate stay the same.
“Acceleration of closing the gap is going to happen with an understanding of the issue, and taking action to actually solve the problem. Implementing best practice solutions will go a long way to continuing to move that needle. It isn’t enough to just put that statistic out there and say, oh this is starting to do better,” said Vivian.
For Vivan, a part of chipping away at the gap has been the Chamber and Funding Alliance’s joint 100% Talent Initiative. Launched after a 2013 study revealed Seattle as having the largest gender pay gap in the nation, the joint effort identified 27 best practices King County employers could implement in their work places to increase wage equity.
Tuesday also served as a progress report of sorts for the fully voluntary initiative. Currently 39 companies – accounting for more than 128,000 workers, or 11.7 % of the county’s work force- are signatories on the effort.
“It’s purposely employer lead,” said Vivian. “Employers actually have a lot of power to change their practices and policies. As we looked at this issue we determined that was the fastest way for more change for more women.”
Gravity Payments CEO, Tammi Kroll followed Daudon and Vivian, extolling the mostly female, and fairly racially diverse crowd of more than 200 to “Be radical in talking about coming up with enough money to fix wage gaps.”
Kroll went on to challenge companies to go beyond giving employees a standard wage increase of 3 percent a year so they could catch up female employees who had initially been paid lower than an equally positioned male counterpart.
Afterwards, attendees streamed from the Hotel ballroom into the first set of three different 90 minute break-out sessions delving deeper into topics such as “Measuring Wage Gap Data” and “Tactics for Implementing Diversity”
Breakout sessions presented the results of studies finding that pay drops in male-dominated fields once women began taking them over.
Sessions also focused on the need for companies to honestly examine their organizational culture in order to determine if it hampers its female employee’s ambitions.
Once the second set of sessions ended, attendees flooded back into the ball room for a keynote speech by Pat Milligan, who encourage those in attendance to ask how they themselves, “showed up as a letter every day.” That question leads to people being accountable for the results of their culture.
Though a predominantly female crowd, the event inspired some male attendees to think a little differently when it came to equity in the workplace.
“I’m really glad I came. It was really useful to be here” said Michael Osthoff or Archbright, an HR consulting firm, reviewing the volume of notes he took during the day.
What stuck out most to Ostoff was the need for “equal” family leave, something touched on by King County Executive Dow Constantine earlier in the day.
“The child of a 2 year employee needs the same time and attention as a child of a 10 year employee, it doesn’t matter how long their parent has been with the company,” said Osthoff.
And though many attendees left knowing the path towards gender equity would be a tough ride, not all were without a sense of optimism for the future.
“In doing this work you really have to embrace incremental change. You are not going to flip the world on its head overnight,” said Emma Mayberry, the director of the 100% Talent Initiative.
“We’re hoping enough people can do things to collectively move that needle. When you look at the data you see that these are real people in King County being impacted- especially in South King County, and those are people who deserve equality now. Actually, they deserved it yesterday.”
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000