Business

She’s pressing top companies on pay equity

Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital.
John Blanding/Globe Staff
Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital.

MANCHESTER-BY-THE SEA — The buzz around the gender pay gap had been building – with a flurry of bills filed and Equal Pay Day speeches made — but those with the power to take immediate action, the companies that issue the paychecks, were slow to act on their own.

Enter Natasha Lamb, director of equity research and shareholder engagement at the Marion-based investment firm Arjuna Capital, who decided it was time to take matters into her own hands.

Last fall, Lamb filed shareholder resolutions at nine major technology companies in which her firm’s clients own stock, directing them to disclose pay differences between men and women and set goals to close them. If the companies fail to respond, the resolutions called for the matter to be put to a vote at the annual meeting, propelling it into a more public sphere.

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So far, six of the companies — Intel Corp., Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Expedia Inc., Microsoft Corp., and eBay Inc. — have either disclosed their pay discrepancies or have committed to do so. Facebook and Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, have not complied. (Due to a technicality, Adobe Systems Inc. doesn’t have to take up the matter until next year.)

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The gaps that have been announced don’t sound egregious, including a 0.2 percent disparity at Microsoft and a 0.4 percent difference at Apple. But none of them report total compensation, Lamb notes, which comprises salary, bonuses, and stock grants.

And companywide averages don’t reveal pay disparities by position, especially in leadership, where fewer women work and the gap is often the widest, Lamb said.

Indeed, breaking down pay by job title — which Lamb did not ask companies to do — can reveal greater inequalities. Male software engineers at major corporations, for instance, make 7 percent more than their female counterparts, according to a study by the career marketplace company Hired Inc.

In some cases, the pay divide appears to be getting worse. According to new research from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, women who just graduated from college make $4 less per hour than male graduates, a bigger gap than in 2000.

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Filing shareholder resolutions has become an increasingly common technique for activist investment firms to spur companies in a socially responsible direction. Climate change and executive pay are popular topics, and the gender wage gap is gaining steam.

“It can be an effective way to light a fire underneath well-known companies about a topic where there is no legislation or no clear legislation,” said Cynthia Clark, director of the Harold S. Geneen Institute of Corporate Governance at Bentley University.

The shareholder votes are nonbinding, but often prompt boards to scrutinize their practices. Closing the pay gap is good for business, after all. A wide body of research shows that diverse leadership leads to more innovative outcomes and higher revenues.

In the technology sector, only 11 percent of executives are female, making it “ripe for change,” said Lamb, who goes after corporate giants from a small office in a cedar-shake-sided Cape in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Unconscious bias is tough to tackle, she said, but pay structure is not.

“It’s an issue that is solvable,” she said. “It’s simply numbers.”

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Lamb, 33, was born in Marblehead and spent most of her childhood on a 180-acre blueberry farm in Maine. She got an MBA in sustainable business, alongside her husband, at what is now Pinchot University in Seattle. After a stint at another firm focused on socially responsible investing, three years ago Lamb landed at Arjuna Capital, a division of Baldwin Brothers Inc., that oversees $900 million in assets.

‘This is an issue that won’t improve unless companies are proactive, transparent, and accountable. We’re trying to . . . shine a light on it so that women aren’t facing persistent bias.’

Natasha Lamb, Arjuna Capital 

Lamb’s mother, who later became a lawyer, owned a fish market in the 1980s, and was one of the only women buying seafood at the Boston Fish Pier. (She carried a gun in her glove box for safety, Lamb said.) Lamb has also experienced her share of inequity in the finance world.

“For the past decade [I] have been going to meetings where it’s me and a bunch of men in black suits around a conference table,” she said, sitting in the backyard of her Manchester office, birds chirping above her. “After I had my first son, I asked for greater flexibility in my work, and the reflection was, ‘You’re not committed to your job.’ ”

In the past, Lamb’s shareholder proposals have focused largely on climate change. But in the fall of 2014, she filed her first gender wage gap resolution, with eBay. The issue went to a vote, but only 8 percent of shareholders approved disclosing wage information by gender. The following year, Lamb refiled the proposal, along with similar requests at eight other companies, and the second time around, 51 percent of the votes cast at eBay were in favor.

EBay, which said it was already in the process of analyzing gender pay equity, plans to release the results in the fall.

“I always joke, it’s me at night working in my slippers vs. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the third-largest law firm in the country, that represents all these guys,” she said.

So far, eBay is the only company where the matter has gone to a vote. Lamb withdrew five of her resolutions when the firms released their wage gaps or agreed to do so. At Google — which declined to release numbers, saying the company prevents pay differences by “setting pay targets by job” — and Facebook, which would only say that “men and women earn the same” at the company, the resolutions will be voted on next month.

Several companies, including GoDaddy and Salesforce.com, however, have recently disclosed their gender pay gaps voluntarily — “a collateral benefit,” Lamb said.

“This is an issue that won’t improve unless companies are proactive, transparent, and accountable,” she said. “We’re trying to break open the black box and shine a light on it so that women aren’t facing persistent bias throughout their careers.”

The nine companies where Lamb has filed shareholder proposals calling for gender wage gap disclosures:

• Intel — Announced that male and female workers have 100 percent pay parity.

• Apple — Announced that female workers made 99.6 percent of what men make.

• Amazon — After filing an unsuccessful request with the SEC to have the proposal thrown out, announced it had 99.9 percent pay equity.

• Microsoft — Announced that it had a 99.8 percent pay equity.

• Expedia — Plans to disclose later this year.

• eBay — After taking the matter to a vote, announced plans to disclose later this year.

• Google — Has not complied.

• Facebook — Has not complied (but published a post saying “men and women are paid the same”).

• Adobe — A technicality pushed the resolution to next year.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.