Billie Jean King, Sheryl Sandberg and others on how to close the gender pay gap

Trailblazers from around the world discuss what works and what else needs to be done

Women around the world will have to wait another two centuries for the global gender gap to fully close.

That’s what the World Economic Forum predicted last December, when it stated that at the current rate of change it could take a startling 257 years to close the workplace gap - which measures factors such as wage equality, seniority and labour force participation.

This comes as no surprise to many of the women currently pushing for change. "Centuries of discrimination gets baked into pay structures," says the BBC broadcaster Carrie Gracie, who in 2018 accused the organisation of an illegal pay structure. "When pay gets out of kilter between men and women it can be ­corrected if it's dealt with early. But if it's allowed to fester for years it's very difficult to get rid of."

Across the world, the average woman’s annual income is $11,500, compared to $21,500 for a man, the WEF estimates. The latest OECD data put the UK gender pay gap at 16 per cent, while the US figure stands at 18.5 per cent. What is more, the economic consequences of coronavirus threaten to derail the slow progress that has been made.


Companies have suddenly gone into survival mode and there is a tendency to fall back on old habits

From business to sport, acting to tech, there are few industries untouched by the divide and for decades campaigners around the globe have spearheaded efforts to highlight the issue and tackle the myriad factors behind the disparity.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, is unequivocal about the issue. "If you fix the pay gap, you would lift three million women out of poverty in the US and you would cut the child poverty rate in half," she says. When you take into account differences in hours spent at work, experience and occupation, she argues there is still 38 per cent of the pay gap you can't explain. "It is bias... it is gender," she says. "There's no other explanation."

Others call for changes to structural inequalities that have seen women earning less than men for decades - whether by giving companies tax incentives if they can document equal pay, publishing more transparent data or ­changing parental leave laws to make it easier for both men and women to balance careers with family responsibilities.

Closing the gap could benefit everyone. "When you let women in, business does better," says former US tennis player and equal pay campaigner Billie Jean King.

“When you have women on board, your net profits go up. Engaging men will drive and accelerate the change on what is not a women’s issue but rather an economic and social issue. It is about men stepping up beside women and saying the promotion of gender equality is everyone’s business.”

Billie Jean King, 76, tennis champion, US

“Sports are a microcosm of society,” reflects the former world number one tennis player and winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, Billie Jean King. “If you look at sports, you start to realise the inequities, lack of opportunities and attitudes. You realise the way the world works.”

Upon winning the US Open in 1972, King discovered she had been paid $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Nastase. Since then she has been a life-long campaigner for equal prize money.

“When I saw that cheque I thought, ‘Oh my God, look how much less. What am I? What is that?’” she says, speaking on the phone from her home in New York. “I went, ‘Oh God, here’s another fight.’”

After King threatened to pull out of the following year’s US Open, the event became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women. Later, in 1973, the star’s campaign for equality attracted an international audience when she beat Bobby Riggs - a 55-year-old former number one who had said he could beat any female player - in a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.

It was a seminal moment for the 29-year-old King. “I wanted to start changing the hearts and minds of the people and [to tell them] we want equality,” she says. “When he jumped the net... he said to me, ‘I underestimated you.’”

Responding to the suggestion that men should get paid more prize money because they play five sets, while women traditionally play three, King retorts: “In entertainment, you don’t get paid by the hour. Secondly, we don’t have a time limit.”

Amid calls last summer to equalise the prize money for the men and women’s football World Cup, opponents argued that the women’s sport receives less advertising revenue because it is less watched. But as King points out: “Women’s sport is in its infancy compared to men’s sport. We are so late in the marketplace. If you’ve had something for 100 years, do you think you’re going to have more people than if you have something that’s 10 or 20 years old?”

It is, she argues, “good business” for the biggest sporting tournaments in the world to include men and women. “You’ve got to have visibility,” she says. “That’s why I played Bobby. If we can get people to invest more in women’s sports, we’ll help everybody.”

As the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, King continues to campaign for the same three goals she set out to achieve in the 1970s. “Any girl born in the world, if she’s good enough, will have a place to compete. Number two, that we’ll be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only our looks. And number three, most importantly, to make a living. It’s something we love. When you have passion and ­purpose it’s the best, right?”

Sheryl Sandberg, 50, chief operating officer, Facebook, US

“Not harassing us is not enough,” says Facebook’s second-in-­command, Sheryl Sandberg. “You can’t ignore us either.”

Ever since the #MeToo phenomenon emerged in 2017, shaking industries across the world, the author of the empowerment manifesto - a call to arms for women to strive for promotion - has worried the movement could unwittingly hamper efforts to close the gender pay gap.

“I think, all over the place, men are saying, ‘Protect yourself, don’t be alone with a woman,’” she says during an interview at Facebook’s headquarters on the outskirts of San Francisco Bay, where she has been COO for 12 years.

When Sandberg’s book was published in 2013, one of the most common responses she privately received from senior men was that it was true they were more likely to take a male employee to dinner or on a work trip.

“Who do you think gets promoted in this scenario?” she asks. “Who has more contacts, more experience? I think #MeToo has inadvertently made that problem so much worse,” she observes. “The data is really clear.”

Research carried out by LeanIn.Org, the organisation she co-founded, estimates that 60 per cent of male managers are now afraid to engage in common workplace activities with a woman, including one-on-one meetings and mentoring.

In order to give women the same opportunities as their male counterparts, employers have to make access equal, Sandberg argues. “If you’re not willing to have dinner with a woman, don’t have dinner with a man.

“I think very well-meaning people are telling them in the #MeToo era that if anyone accuses you of anything, you’re gone. ‘Protect yourself.’ I don’t think that’s crazy. I wouldn’t do meetings in hotel rooms. Do things in public. You can still have a one-on-one meeting in an office. Leave the door open.”

On the issue of equal pay, Facebook also has work to do. In April 2019, the company's median gender pay gap in the UK stood at 12.3 per cent. Sandberg, who previously built the advertising business at Google and worked at the US Treasury, dismisses the claim that part of the gender pay gap can be explained away by the idea that women simply do not ask for more money.

At the time Lean In was published, she says, the data showed women were less likely to ask for pay rises. This is no longer the case. Five years of data collected by management consulting firm McKinsey and LeanIn.Org shows women are now asking for raises and promotions at the same rates as men – “they’re just not getting the same results”.

A number of factors are to blame. One is that stereotypes are “prescriptive”, she argues. “Men are supposed to advocate for themselves. They’re supposed to be leaders. They’re supposed to be demanding. Women are supposed to listen, advocate for others, be communal.”

A man asking for a raise is, she says, conforming to a stereotype and “you feel great about him. When a woman is asking for a raise, she is going against her stereotype, so she is asking for something.”

After her first book was published, thousands of women told Sandberg they had “used” it to help them ask for a raise. “Do you know why that works?” she asks. “It’s communal. What you’re saying is, ‘I’m not asking just for me. I’m asking because women need to be paid the same as men.’ It actually works.”

Sandberg says she wants to change the stereotypes, “but if you want to get the raise and you want people not to dislike you, one really good thing is to say, ‘Look, this is not just for me. This is for my team. I’m going to be more effective at my job if I know I’m paid better.’

“When I negotiated with Mark, I didn’t know the data then, but I just instinctively said, ‘You’re hiring me to be your lead negotiator. You want me to be a good negotiator’ – so I was communal.”

“Women systematically underestimate themselves, and men systematically overestimate themselves, and here we are.”

Zama Khanyile, 36, fund manager, South Africa

"Only when we know the truth can we take ­corrective action," says Zama Khanyile from her home in Johannesburg.

“For me, the biggest issue is transparency,” says the president of the African Women Chartered Accountants’ association and fund manager at South Africa’s National Empowerment Fund. Khanyile is ­calling on her country’s government to ­introduce ­legislation that would make it compulsory for big companies to publish their gender pay-gap ­figures.

In 2003, South Africa introduced quotas to ensure the economic inclusion of black people after apartheid. Today, argues Khanyile, "we need the same strong, intentional approach to address women being underpaid".

In a post-apartheid society, Khanyile says that black women in South Africa are not only grappling with gender disparity. Recent data from the World Bank show South Africa remains the world's most unequal country. The top 10 per cent, mostly white, hold 70 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom 60 per cent, overwhelmingly in the black majority, have 10 times less.

“We not only have to deal with the pay gap but also the systemic issues that underpin it,” Khanyile says. “There are far too few black females in senior­­ leadership roles.”

While positions in the public sector are advertised widely across various media platforms, with job descriptions and salary bands for each position, Khanyile says the private sector is far more opaque.

“You can’t say you believe you are underpaid today, because you’re not supposed to have access to that information in the first place.”

Kathy Matsui, 55, vice-chair and chief Japan strategist, Goldman Sachs, Japan

Japan's 25 per cent gender pay gap is the largest in the G7 and the second-largest in the OECD. Kathy Matsui, the Goldman Sachs strategist who coined the term "womenomics" and inspired Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put female economic empowerment at the top of his agenda, believes the high number of women taking up part-time work is crucial in explaining this.

"It's one thing to have more women working, which is great," says Matsui from her office in Tokyo. "But if over half of them are working part time, it is much harder for them to get into leadership positions."

Women account for 70 per cent of Japan’s part-time or non-­regular workers, and are also less likely to see any wage ­progression according to a womenomics report published by Goldman Sachs Research in April 2019.

The greater prevalence of part-time working among ­mothers who return to their companies after having children plays a ­significant part in the overall pay gap. It also reflects what Matsui describes as “very outmoded and traditional constraints built into the labour market”.

Women on the first rung of the corporate ladder are forced by a number of the larger Japanese companies to choose between “career track” (sogo-shoku) and “non-career” (ippan-shoku) positions when they join a company after university.

The former typically offer higher salaries, as well as training and development, but 82 per cent of non-career-track roles are accounted for by women starting their careers, she says. By contrast, the career-track figure for women is just over 20 per cent. This “rigid dual-track system” results in significant gaps in promotion opportunities and wages for women in the long term.

Matsui also puts the gulf down to a number of structural ­factors, including the country’s system of lifetime employment contracts, which sees many traditional Japanese companies ­evaluate pay based on seniority and time spent in post as opposed to performance and output. As women with more caring responsibilities tend to take up part-time work after having children, they will subsequently earn far lower salaries than their male equivalents.

Matsui herself rose up the ladder in Japan, joining Goldman Sachs in 1994 before being named managing director in 1998 and its first female partner in Japan in 2000.

Abe made her ideas a core part of his “Abenomics” policies in 2013, after she published a series of reports assessing the country’s problems with gender diversity.

With the overall labour force expected to shrink by as much as 40 per cent by 2055, the hope is that bringing more women into the workforce will raise Japan’s growth potential. Matsui believes that closing the country’s gender employment gap and encouraging more Japanese women to get away from solely part-time work could raise the country’s GDP by as much as 15 per cent.

Government-led action to create more flexible labour contracts would allow women to keep progressing up the career ladder, she argues, as would rectifying tax disincentives that ­discourage married women from working full time. In her latest book, How to Nurture Female Employees, Matsui also puts the onus on companies to do more to help women.

“Often, when a Japanese woman who is talented and capable is offered a promotion, she rejects it, because she doesn’t have the confidence early on in her career and questions what will happen if she gets married or pregnant,” she says.

“After that first rejection, management usually just accepts it and moves on to the next candidate. So what I encourage management to do is not give up after the first try, to ask again and ask in a different way.”

Tracy Chou, 32, software engineer, US

In 2013, Tracy Chou put a blog post on Medium. com in which she urged tech companies in Silicon Valley to come clean on the true number of women in their workforce.

Every future employer who asks for her previous salary will just add on a little bit more on top of that, then the differences with men are compounded over time

“The actual numbers I’ve seen and experienced in [the]industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit,” she wrote in the post. “So where are the numbers?”

After her call for action went viral and companies started submitting numbers to Chou’s own data repository, tech giants Google and Facebook released their data. The figures confirmed her ­suspicion: women in her industry were scarce.

Chou, a software developer who has worked at Pinterest and Quora, has since become an advocate for fixing the structural bias facing women in tech. When it comes to the gender pay gap in the sector, she suggests it should be illegal for employers to ask job applicants for their current or prior salaries - a common negotiation tactic that companies deploy with new hires.

“Let’s say a woman of colour starts off in the industry and has a pretty low salary because of systemic bias. Every future employer who asks for her previous salary will just add on a little bit more on top of that, then the differences with men are compounded over time,” she says, during an interview in February in London.

Chou also points to the complications of judging salary versus equity compensation, particularly at earlier-stage companies where the equity value is a huge unknown. “It’s very difficult to compare how people’s compensation packages are equal when one person might opt for more cash and less stock, and someone else might do the opposite,” she says.

“At different stages of a start-up the amount of equity that will be given out changes quite a bit because, earlier on, you give out a lot more equity as it’s so high risk, but it’s also very likely to be worth nothing. In cases where start-ups do become successful, then those big equity packages that were given at the beginning become worth a lot.

“So, the people who get a lot of equity will be the founders, investors and early employees, and sometimes executives, who often tend to be male.”

She points out that these men frequently use their wealth to start new companies, become investors themselves and take on a lot of risk, “so the ecosystem of inequality perpetuates itself”.

The solution, she says, is to bring greater diversity into the ranks of investors, hiring them into venture capital firms at first. “This hopefully diversifies the investments they make and the types of founders they back... pushing founders to make more early and executive hires that are diverse, so that those equity payouts go more towards women and minorities when there are start-up successes.”

Carrie Gracie, 58, journalist, England

In January 2018, Carrie Gracie resigned as the BBC’s China editor after accusing the broadcaster of a “secretive and illegal pay culture” that systematically discriminates against women.

In a withering open letter, the experienced journalist accused her bosses of taking a “divide-and-rule” approach to female staff, after learning that two of her male peers were paid significantly more.

Women often don’t realise they’re being paid less, she says in a phone interview from her London home. “When pay gets out of kilter between men and women, it can be corrected if it’s dealt with early. But if it’s allowed to fester for years it can become very wide, and then it becomes very difficult for the employer to acknowledge that there wasn’t a good reason for it,” she says.

Research carried out last year by the Fawcett Society, the gender equality charity, showed that 60 per cent of women working in the UK either do not know what their male colleagues earn, or believe they are earning less than men who are doing the same job. Alongside the charity, Gracie is now demanding a change in the law to give women a "right to know" what colleagues earn if they suspect there is discrimination.

The Equal Pay Bill, which has been tabled by the Labour peer Baroness Prosser, is currently in the House of Lords awaiting a second reading. The charity is also working with the Labour MP Stella Creasy to pursue a private members' bill in the House of Commons later this year.

“I have the utmost sympathy and empathy for everybody who feels this awkwardness about embarking on this conversation with male colleagues,” Gracie says. “But men have the power to dismantle the system that privileges them.”

She goes one step further as well, suggesting that men should physically accompany their female colleagues when they enter pay negotiations. “They can argue the woman does the same job and then the employer has nowhere to go.”

Speaking during lockdown, Gracie is also concerned that the pandemic could reverse progress made in recent years towards greater transparency. With a recession looming, she argues it will be harder for women to interrogate their pay with an employer. Statistics and empirical research already suggest that women are being disproportionately hurt by the economic fallout.

The UK government removed the requirement for companies to report their pay gaps this year at the onset of the coronavirus crisis in March, in an attempt to help companies that were ­struggling to cope. Sectors employing high numbers of women have been badly affected and women are picking up the lion’s share of childcare duties. Issues such as diversity and inclusion are no longer at the top of the corporate agenda.

“Companies have suddenly gone into survival mode and there is a tendency to fall back on old habits,” Gracie says.

Rebecca Amsellem, 31, activist, France

“We can go on all the marches in the world but if we don’t have economic power, it’s all going to crumble,” says Rebecca Amsellem, author and founder of French feminist newsletter Les Glorieuses. “With money comes power.”

Speaking in a bustling Parisian café earlier this year, Amsellem, who has a PhD in economics, says her latest call to arms is for the government to introduce tax incentives for French companies who obtain “equal pay certification” and can demonstrate they pay all employees in the same role equally.

She believes that “if it is mandatory for firms who ask for financial help from the French state, it would be an effective incentive”. The certification system is already working in Iceland, she notes. Since January 2018, companies there with 25 or more employees are required by law to have a certificate proving everyone in the same role is paid equally.

Amsellem also wants France to follow the example of Sweden and replace maternity leave with parental leave. A Swedish study published in 2010 found that each month a father stays on parental leave increases a mother's earnings, which in turn led researchers to conclude that a lack of involvement by fathers in childcare and parental leave "could be one factor" behind the gender pay gap.

In France, says Amsellem, data show the gap between men and women starts to widen between the ages of 30 and 35, when many women tend to have their first child. If parental leave was equal, “women would be less disadvantaged in the labour market and employers would no longer have to consider the fact that a potential employee was at a child-bearing age”, she says. “Women would also no longer be prevented from taking on higher responsibilities when they consider having a child.

“Maybe we have to start giving men the benefit of the doubt that they can take care of their children,” she adds. “But we actually have to create the system for it and this is what people maybe forget. We are working to build a new system, not to fight people in this one.”

Aditi Rao Hydari, 33, actor, India

As an actor embarking on her career in Mumbai more than 10 years ago, Aditi Rao Hydari remembers starring in a film alongside another newcomer. The only difference in their ­situations was that she was a woman and her counterpart was a man. "I didn't think to question why the male actor in exactly the same position as me got paid twice as much," she says. "The other thing I remember is that he received his entire cheque, whereas I [still] have not been paid what I was promised."

Years later, the award-winning Hydari, who starred in the 2018 epic Padmaavat, is using her substantial social media following to advocate for gender pay equality. She insists it’s not a “fight” but a conversation she wants to have with the whole industry. “We’re not saying we’re better than the other sex, we are saying that we are all together in this business. It’s about the quality of work we bring to the table... These decisions need to be professional, not gender based. It’s about opening people’s minds to something that’s almost been a habit.”

As attitudes towards women have evolved in recent years in India, Hydari is encouraged to see more women becoming directors and producers and speaking out about how they are portrayed on screen. Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar are just two of the writer-directors who have risen to prominence in the country in recent years.

“There are enough female actors who are speaking about pay parity, and who want to be creatively valued as actors in the projects they work on and not be treated as replaceable objects,” she says. As producers, women have the power to tell different kinds of stories on screen. “They are saying, ‘OK, people are not making the kind of stuff I want to make, so I create the stuff that I want to create.’ This is all happening, but it’s one step at a time.

“As an Indian,” she adds, “people often have a particular perception of my country and how we are still in the dark ages but that’s not entirely true. We are pushing for change in a more expansive direction free of gender and, hopefully, any kind of bias. Ultimately, it’s about the person, their heart and mind, and how they impact the world. A man and woman can impact the world equally.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020