Twelve years ago, when Nitsch Engineering was taking off, the founder and chief operating officer decided to test their assumptions about pay equity. They commissioned an independent analysis comparing salaries at Nitsch to those at similarly sized companies in Greater Boston. What they discovered shocked them: They paid the men in senior positions competitively, even toward the higher end of the salary range. But that wasn’t true for the high-ranking women. The firm’s female top executives were dramatically underpaying themselves.
“That was eye-opening for me,” says Lisa Brothers, former COO and now chairman and chief executive of the Boston-based civil engineering firm. “I pay that much more attention to it now.”
Implicit biases can lead to salary gaps in workplaces where no one would expect them. That’s why Brothers, who adjusted her own salary years ago, thank you, has long urged other executives confident in their inherent fairness to test their assumptions with an independent scrub of actual data. More companies are doing so, and some are participating in a city initiative that aims to gauge the scope of the pay gap and make Boston the first major city to close it.
The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, of which Brothers is a member, has recruited 222 companies to sign onto its “100 Percent Talent Compact.” Those companies pledge to take measurable steps toward closing the pay gap, in part by anonymously providing their demographic and compensation data for collective analysis every two years. Last year, the council collected wage data from 69 companies and identified a local wage gap of 23 cents — meaning that, for every dollar earned by men, women were earning 77 cents. And these are companies that are concerned about pay equity, Brothers notes: “Imagine if we’re drawing companies who aren’t. Imagine what the true wage gap is.”
While those at the top of the corporate ladder may have trouble acknowledging and confronting pay disparities, those on the lower rungs often face a challenge in documenting it. A bill signed into law last year by Governor Charlie Baker, which goes into effect in July, addresses wage inequities in a number of ways, including setting standards based on skills, responsibility, and effort that can be used to compare the work of employees in similar jobs. Nitsch, which has just over 100 employees, is able to make those comparisons fairly easily. “I can still look at a spreadsheet that has every position, the person, degrees, the years they’ve been in their particular position, and then their salary,” says Brothers. “The challenge becomes when you get to be much bigger.”
Equity and inclusion have long been part of the culture at Addgene, a Cambridge nonprofit that distributes fragments of DNA called plasmids to research scientists around the world. But as it evolved from startup mode, the organization became more focused on pay under the leadership of executive director Joanne Kamens, a geneticist who regularly lectures on gender equality and jump-started a previously defunct Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science. Kamens holds “unbiasing workshops” for her employees and puts her money where her mouth is, regularly monitoring salaries for gender equity and awarding raises at least two or three times a year. If a new hire commands a higher salary, “we’ll adjust the whole team,” Kamens says.
Addgene’s managers are also vigilant about interviewing diverse candidates and checking their own implicit biases. Job candidates are interviewed by up to a dozen team members who then meet as a group to confer on the potential hires’ merits. A human resources specialist in the meeting pushes them to explain and defend their preferences, and not get away with facile explanations that “ ‘my gut tells me this is the right candidate,’ ” Kamens says, noting that they want to make sure they’re not just hiring a person who looks the part. Workplaces need to be proactive to prevent disparities from creeping in, she says. Even the most well-intentioned people have natural biases that need to be kept in check. “Diversity doesn’t just happen,” Kamens says.