International Women’s Day & Figures We Can’t Forget

March 6, 2020

While it’s been around for more than 100 years, International Women’s Day (IWD) has only recently gained widespread public attention. I am thrilled that more people and more countries around the world are focused on celebrating the achievements of women and committing to the push for gender equality at work, in government, and across the cultural and educational institutions that shape society.  

As I reflected on the importance of this day to write this blog, my recent trip to Houston to present to the local SIM Women’s Group on the Gender Pay Gap in Technology kept coming to mind. The room was full of talented women technology professionals—many of whom have been in the industry for a long time. Nevertheless, when I shared the pay gap data there was still a sense of surprise in the room. Data like this:

  • Women make up about 26% of the tech workforce nationally and, on average, are paid only 83% of what men are paid in the industry. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cited in SmartAsset’s Best Cities for Women in Tech study)
  • In Silicon Valley, women earn 40% to 73% less than their male counterparts. (Source: Claudia Goldin, Harvard Labor Economist)
  • Women are offered 3 percent less than men for the same tech job at the same company. (Source: “The State of Wage Inequality in the Workplace” Report – Hired.com)

Why Are We Surprised?

Now even I get a jolt of surprise  especially in 2020, whenever I see pay gap data, and I present it! I also help run a Women in Tech survey that studies it. Why is it then that the data can still jolt me and my fellow female tech professionals? For one, I think it’s because we are all so busy and working so hard. We are still fighting the struggle that IWD honors today, and we do it by striving, delivering, upskilling, ladder climbing, and mentoring across the industry. When we have time to peek our heads up from our demanding tech careers, it’s shocking to see that gap has not simply been slammed shut forever by the force of our work ethic, high performance, technology passion, and ambition.  

Why We Can’t Forget

With the passing of the extraordinary NASA mathematician and STEM legend Katherine Johnson just a few weeks ago, I am reminded of the powerful title of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book that profiled Johnson and her fellow female, African American mathematicians at NASA: Hidden Figures. Johnson’s remarkable STEM work was essential to America’s space program and yet she and her work remained hidden figures to most Americans until recently.

As I think of the many incredible female STEM pioneers I have idolized—such as Rachel Carson, marine biologist and environmentalist; Grace Murray Hopper, programmer and developer of COBOL; and Ruth Rogan Benerito, chemist who saved the cotton industry—I say, “Enough of hidden figures.” We have to celebrate and remember them on IWD and beyond IWD. I say enough of overlooking and forgetting pay gaps that make no sense (Offering men a higher salary for the same job? Seriously?). And I say enough of missing opportunities to infuse our daughters, nieces, protégées, and mentees with the confidence to demand equity, rather than to hope or wait for it. 

Learning to Make the Case for Equity

I recently heard the story of a father who was training his young daughters to negotiate with confidence by asking them to make a case for what their allowance should be each year. His goal is to teach them to make thoughtful arguments for what they feel they should earn. The result is two young women who are gaining important experience in assessing their performance and making a case for the compensation to reward those efforts. It’s valuable training to engrain at an early age, and I believe it will result in something essential: confidence.

Two Factors Behind the Gap

In our pay gap discussion back in Texas, we kept returning to two factors that allow the pay gap to persist. One was a lack of confidence among women to make their case for more money and the second was a lack of CEOs and Human Resource Execs (powered by the CEO) who were willing to analyze their own organizations and make pay equity a priority. I think by purposefully focusing on cultivating confidence and case-building skills among women—much like the father mentioned in the story above—we can tackle both. 

Confidence Is the Lynchpin

Confidence training and case-building skills should start early with young girls and remain priority and practice throughout the course of our careers, wherever they lead. The more women we have across the tech sector negotiating pay with confidence and good data points, the harder it will be for companies to justify and maintain inequity in pay. It will be very hard for any CEO to overlook pay gap issues when an essential, confident, and growing segment of the workforce continues to point it out and negotiate for a better solution. Together, we have to confidently force compensation changes by making good arguments and reminding the world that women in STEM today cannot be hidden and our contributions will not be forgotten. 

Rest in peace Katherine Johnson. Your brilliance shines on.