Ask the Expert: How to Advocate for Equal Pay for Your Minority Employees

by Dr. Shay L. Butler

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Question: I inherited a staff which includes two individuals working in identical capacities, both with over 15 years at the institution, but with different job classifications. The white male has a higher job title and is making $10,000 more than the woman, who is Latina. I do believe that prior to my arrival the expertise of the male was more valued and therefore the responsibility he had was often slightly elevated. However, upon my arrival I treated both equally, demonstrating confidence in both of their expertise and skillsets. In turn, my female employee’s attitude, initiative, and productivity have far surpassed that of her male counterpart’s. I believe that the close relationship that my male employee has with my boss (also white male, same age, and part of the executive team on my campus) has led to preferential treatment and that this preferential treatment, in turn, resulted in disengagement from my female employee, allowing the pay gap to continue to increase. According to LeanIn.org, Latinas in the US are paid 47% less than white men and I hate that as the supervisor to these two individuals, I’m contributing to this statistic, even if, as a middle manager, I have limited control over their salaries. I want to fight for equal payment for my female employee. My campus has just gone through major layoffs, so the timing is terrible. What suggestions do you have for me to navigate this situation while minimizing personal fallout, which would, in turn, make me a less effective advocate and leader for my department?

Answer from Dr. Shai L. Butler, VP for Student Success & Engagement and Chief Diversity Officer: Thank you for this great question. Often, women can be underpaid and undervalued in the workplace because we don’t toot our own horns enough. Clearly, you know the value of your employee’s contributions to the workspace but do others, especially your boss? How are you positioning her to show her expertise and share her amazing results? Depending upon her role, this may be harder to do than it sounds, so be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.

If you have a good relationship with her and you don’t think that she’d be offended, purchase Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith’s book “How Women Rise” which discusses the 12 self-imposed barriers that women face in the workplace and how to overcome them. I’ve read the book and believe it offers great advice. Since you point out that your male supervisee has benefited from his relationship with your boss, you might advise your female supervisee to not only build but leverage her own relationships in the workplace, a tip given by Helgesen and Goldsmith. It’s great that she has you as a supporter, but who else might she need in her corner to help position her for advancement? Is there a colleague or one of your boss’s supervisors that he (your boss) seems to respect and admire? Is there an opportunity to position her by assigning her to a committee that the President or your boss’s boss is on, where she can showcase her expertise?

One way to boost your employee’s confidence is to identify a webinar on an emerging trend topic within her portfolio, watch it, and then you both can work together on a way to tailor and implement cutting edge ideas for your campus and then give her the freedom to innovate.

If she’s despondent and demoralized, doing all of these things won’t matter if you don’t communicate to her that you see her worth. She should know that you want to position her for promotional opportunities, either within your organization or outside of it, if she won’t receive the acknowledgment deserved by your current employer. Your supervisor will value your affirmation and support. Let her know that you have a professional development plan for her and a way to elevate her profile, but she will need to play a role by creating and leveraging new connections in the workspace. If you know of a senior administrator who thinks well of her, tell her and then find ways to get her on a working group with that person. Sing her praises in meetings that she can’t be in and always be on the lookout to help her shine. What you seek to do is admirable, and I hope you both advance at your institution. They are lucky to have both of you.

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