In Your Own Words: Momentum for the Equal Pay Movement

2016 was a major moment in the fight to close the gender pay gap. An equal pay expert explains why.

By Katie Donovan '85

Fittingly, I sit down to write this article on April 12, 2016. It is Equal Pay Day and it is greeted with lots of media coverage and local, regional, national and virtual events. It is the day that represents the extra days American women typically need to work to earn what men earned in the previous year. It’s the Super Bowl for people like me, who work toward closing the gender pay gap. The day starts with breakfast and the official launch of EqualPayMA.com, hosted by Massachusetts Treasurer Deb Goldberg. The site has tools for employers and employees to close the gender pay gap and some of my contributions can be found in The Employer Toolkit.

At midday, Mary Johnson, the editor of Biz Women Journal, emails that the first in a series of interviews with Biz Women is posted. The day will end around 7:30 p.m., when I finish a client call. Tomorrow, or Equal Pay Day +1, will include an event at the Massachusetts State House hosted by the Caucus of Women Legislators and the Massachusetts Equal Pay Coalition, in support of an Equal Pay Bill. As a founding member of the Massachusetts Equal Pay Coalition and contributor to the bill, I will be at the State House cheering at the appropriate times, while hoping there will be no need to have similar programs in future years.  

The gender pay gap is not a new issue, but it is an issue with growing awareness. In 1945, Massachusetts became the first state to pass an equal pay bill. President Kennedy signed the federal Equal Pay Act in 1963. Despite a federal law and state laws in all but two states (Alabama and Mississippi), women working full time earn, on average, just 79 cents for every dollar earned by men working full time. Another way to think of it is to look at every Friday as a day that women work for free.

I have been actively involved in the issue for five years. When I started this work, people interested in the issue needed to actively search to find information on the gender pay gap. That all changed in 2014, thanks to two unlikely sources: actors Seth Rogen and James Franco.

The butterfly effect of their 2014 movie “The Interview” made the gender pay gap an ever-present news topic. The movie is about a reporter who lands an interview with the North Korean Supreme Leader, and then becomes involved in a plot to assassinate him. It’s a comedy, but the real North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jung-un, found nothing funny about this. North Korea hacked Sony, the studio that was distributing the film. This became known as the Sony Hack and it put a spotlight on equal pay issues in Hollywood by sharing the records of salaries that co-stars earned in the same films.

Then, during the 2015 Oscars, Patricia Arquette included a call for equal pay in her acceptance speech for best supporting actress, for her work in the movie “Boyhood.” Beloved Meryl Streep jumped out of her seat applauding. That moment. That crystalizing moment brought the topic to the masses. No longer did you need to look for news on equal pay. Now you trip over equal pay news in the local, national and entertainment news.

Religious news covered it when Pope Francis called pay inequity a “pure scandal.” Sports media covered it when women soccer players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, because their salaries are significantly lower than the men’s national team, even though they have superior international results.

As the saying goes, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The countless organizations and individuals fighting against gender-based pay inequities saw their luck change in 2015 and 2016. The magnified awareness helped seven states, including New York and California, pass new equal pay laws.

Companies, most notably Salesforce.com, began to look inward and publically share what they found about their own pay differentials, and then correct them. Presidential executive orders and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations were announced.

More women are learning to negotiate their employment packages, because it is the thing that employees can control. Boston created a partnership with businesses to close the gap. The combination of all stakeholders (employee, employer and government) wanting to be part of solutions, instead of a silent spectator on the sidelines, gives the cause a new momentum.

Here’s to keeping the momentum going and closing the gap, so that the next generation of Lady Crusaders never has to experience it.  ■

Editor’s Note: Massachusetts signed a new Equal Pay Bill into law on August 1, 2016 (pictured). It made headlines as one of the toughest equal pay laws in the country, and for a provision that makes it illegal for employers to ask job applicants about their current salary. Donovan says, “I have to admit I am very proud of that provision in the law. It was just under five years since I decided to bring that issue to the conversation of equal pay, and to have my home state be the first to act on it is a thrill.”

Connect with Katie Donovan ’85 on Twitter @KDSalaryCoach