The gender pay disparity and broken leadership ladder continue to disadvantage women of color, but a new generation of visionaries are picking up the slack and changing the face of the future
Early in her career, Kinnari Patel was told she should wear higher heels, fake glasses, and smile less so she could look more mature and be taken more seriously. While she at first went along with these societal expectations, she soon realized these requirements were superficial, and in reality, they obscured the real issues of gender bias that were happening in the workplace.
“Like many other ambitious and dedicated women, all I really wanted to do was to focus on the work,” says Patel. Her ambition led her to take on a second role in addition to her primary position that came with a new title, but no additional compensation. It was only later she realized that her male colleagues not only had fewer responsibilities and lower roles but were being paid more than her. “It was a great example of how we as women feel the need to do more to prove ourselves,” she says.
Since then, she’s moved up in her career to be the president and chief operating officer of Rocket Pharmaceuticals and has made it her mission to ensure her company takes an active role in implementing policies that support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But structural change also continues to be needed to level the playing field for women, both when it comes to access to management positions and equal pay.
March 14 will be celebrated in the United States this year as Equal Pay Day, the day that symbolizes how far into the new year a woman must work to catch up to what a man earned the previous year. According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), women make up 44 percent of the overall workforce, but only 41 percent of managers, and still only earn only an estimated 82 cents for every dollar that men earned, a gap that has barely budged in 15 years.
But as more women ascend to leadership roles, they’re working to change things by mentoring and sponsoring women, pushing for compensation equity, and changing corporate culture at the highest levels.
The Value of Sponsorship
Chaitra Vedullapalli found success early in her career due to strong executive sponsors who not only taught her how to navigate the corporate world, but also advocated for her to be in front of important customers and stay involved in high-visibility partnerships.
In one of her roles, the CIO backed her to lead a deal, even when the account management team initially resisted. “He opened the door and made sure I had a seat at the table,” she says. “It made me realize you need allyship and representation. Both must work together. But to make that work, you have to bring something to the table, always.”
To change that culture at a global level, DEI consultants advise that it’s essential that corporations conduct training in the areas of gender bias, particularly around creating a culture of sponsorship. “Otherwise, the people who get that high level advocacy support are the are white men, to the exclusion of women and women of color and women with intersectional identities,” says Ritu Bhasin, founder of Bhasin Consulting and author of the forthcoming book We’ve Got This: Unlocking the Beauty of Belonging.
The Full Package
Today, Vedullapalli—now co-founder and president of networking group Women In Cloud and marketing software company Meylah—also believes the conversation about the pay gap focuses too much around salary, and too little around the other areas of compensation, which actually makes the pay gap even worse.
“My mentor, who was also my manager, taught me how to negotiate for your compensation, not just the salary,” she says. “She sat down and said, ‘Here’s how compensation works in the tech industry.’” From that point on, Vedullapalli was always able to articulate the value that she brought to the company and create the appropriate compensation package for her roles.
“Compensation involves perks, bonuses, stocks and equity and pay,” she says. “When you look at that, there’s less research done holistically to see if the compensation equity is equal and or there’s a huge gap.” Evidence continues to point to the latter. One recent study by the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that women received 15 to 30 percent less equity in startups and public companies when compared to men, only exacerbating the wealth gap.
“We need to educate women on what this compensation really should look like, and how to negotiate based on the value you bring to the table,” says Vedullapalli. “That is not happening in the market at the level they need.”
The Problem with the Pipeline
Women also continue to be left behind when it comes to moving up in management. That first “rung of the ladder” continues to be broken according to McKinsey and Company’s annual Women in the Workplace report. For every 100 men who get promoted from entry-level jobs, only 82 women of color are promoted. Because men so heavily outnumber women in management, women never have the chance to catch-up as candidates to fill senior leadership positions.
“I can personally attest to the reality of the ‘pipeline problem,’ which is especially prevalent in biotech and pharmaceuticals – worlds that are highly populated by us as South Asian and Indian women,” said Patel. But for her, it’s more than just filling the C-Suite with a percentage, but ensuring women have genuine opportunities for growth and advancement. She also found it challenging to find mentors and peers from whom she could ask for advice and help on her climb to the C-suite.
“The issue is not just about fairness and equality but also about the missed opportunities,” says Patel. “Both for women, who are hindered in their progress and advancement, and for organizations by not leveraging the full potential of their female talent.”
However, she remains optimistic in the biotech world, where she has seen a gradual shift in companies promoting more female scientists from laboratory positions to management roles. In her own leadership role, she helped establish Rocket University, which focuses on improving management and career development skills so that women and people of color have a more level playing field. And so far, they’ve seen positive progress. As of their last survey, 62% of the senior leadership identifies as BIPOC.
Though there’s still a long way to go to reach the day when we no longer need to recognize Equal Pay Day, each leader that pushes for equity in pay and promotions makes a positive impact toward creating a fairer future—one that benefits all of us.
“History shows that early generation immigrants often bring with them a work ethic and grit that elevates whatever fields they enter, most of them today people of color,” says Patel. “In order to ensure that our organizations truly reap the benefit of this incredibly rich diversity for generations to come, we need to find ways to find equity and parity in compensation for all.”
5 Ways to Work Toward Equity
Kinnari Patel, President and Chief Operating Officer of Rocket Pharmaceuticals, navigated her way to the C-Suite all before age 40, but she faced plenty of ups and downs along the way. Here’s her advice for the women rising through the ranks.
- Know yourself first. Have a strong grasp on your strengths, gaps, superpowers, and Achilles heels. The more you know yourself, the better chance you can find a place to be authentic and shine at the same time.
- Reach out for help. We are lucky to have a culture where family, friends and our community are such a strong support system. Find ways through your network to carve a path forward, whether it’s about roles, compensation, or career moves.
- Grow within and outside of your company. We lead complex lives as women, but embracing career growth development (like joining organizations within your industry) can lead to new opportunities.
- Challenge the status quo. Don’t be afraid to speak out against workplace discrimination and bias.
- Be an ally. Mentor other women and work towards creating a more inclusive environment. Commit to paying it forward for future generations to come.
[Infographic – Would be great to represent one or both of these simplified in our style; with a focus on the percentages in the women of color.]: