How to avoid gender discrimination: start with incentive structures


Web development is sadly a man's world.

When I find myself at more technical conferences it's not unusual for the audience to be 90% male and at White Fuse Media we are no exception with 7 out 10 of the team being male.

This imbalance is even more striking because our customers are almost exclusively charities, a sector in which women outnumber men - although not in senior leadership.

We've had a few conversations within the team recently about how we respond to this. What does it mean for a small agency like us to respond proactively to inequality?

While we haven't come up with many answers yet, we have found one area where we can make some small steps: pay inequality.  

Why reactive cultures can cause pay inequality

Direct discrimination on the basis of sex has been illegal for decades, but indirect discrimination persists. This means that in lots of small ways, for various reasons, women are valued less highly across the workforce.

There are many reasons why this is the case, and one factor that is particularly relevant to small organisations is the prevalence of reactive incentive cultures. Small organisations often struggle to find time to set out processes and systems and therefore react to issues around pay and incentives only when prompted by circumstances.

While small reactive cultures can be an advantage in some ways, when it comes to pay it can be a subtle entry point for discrimination. 

The danger of a reactive approach to remuneration is that you can inadvertently find yourself creating perverse incentives. When someone approaches their manager and asks for a pay increase, the response given will inevitably create a culture with certain incentives - if a request for a pay increase leads to an immediate pay increase, this says to employees 'we provide pay rises to people who ask for pay rises'.

This kind of approach to pay is commonplace but it favours the bold and the bolschy, skills in which men have been more thoroughly indoctrinated. This can lead to pay inequality. 


Subjectivity and subtle biases

There are also more subtle dangers. Sex discrimination retains a latent power within decision making, i.e. we are conditioned to value women less highly. This means that wherever we allow subjectivity into our decision making processes there is a danger that inequality will survive.

A common practice that can increase subjectivity is the alignment of pay reviews with an employee's start date anniversary. While this may seem inocuous enough and have the sheen of process, it leads to pay reviews being conducted in isolation. The lack of comparison across the team makes it much harder to spot subjective judgements.

Three practices that can help reduce pay inequality in your workplace  

These are three practices that we adopt that we think help us to reduce the risk of pay inequality:

1. Transparent salary bands

While it felt a bit pompous doing this when we only have 10 employees, publishing a range of salary bands and associated salary ranges helps us to keep things objective. 

Buffer, one of our favourite web apps, goes one step further and publishes all salary information. We haven't gone that far yet but transparency is a powerful tool to combat for leveling the playing field. Maybe we should do it?

2. Transparent evaluation criteria

Scientific or data-driven appraisals tend to be unrealistic and undesirable for small organisations. However, publishing the factors that determine someone's movement through their salary band is a simple additional layer of objectivity and a helpful guide when assessing salary levels and discussing this across the organisation. 

3. Synchronised annual pay reviews

If your management team reviews salaries across the team at the same time this means everyone in the team is being considered in light of other team members. This makes differential treatment between team members much more apparent and forces the managment team to deal with such discrepancies directly. 

These are small steps but for they are also pretty easy to implement. Gender is likely to continue to be a conversation point among our team and we undoubtedly have a long way to go.

Next on the list is how we help to promote coding to women and girls. If we get some good ideas on that we will share them. Feel free to chip in with your own thoughts and comments below. 

(For more on gender see this post our Designer Amy wrote about the representation of women in charity communications.)

10 March 2015
Andy Pearson