HR
Melanie Hulbert

Interview with Melanie Hulbert, PhD

Emily Manke, of OnlineHumanResources had the privilege of interviewing Melanie Hulbert, Assistant Professor of Sociology at George Fox University near Portland, Oregon. Melanie specializes in sociology of work and gender issues and family. She also has interest in race/ethnicity themes.

What do you think, are some of the main contributing factors responsible for the current pay gap between genders ?

Of course there are a lot of contributing factors. Men and women both enter the workforce at the same time, with the same education and credentials. It’s not that we’re starting out from different points. I think what happens is, once we’re in the workplace, men and women are exiting and entering at different places. Because we still live in a culture where women, for the most part, not all, it’s changing, are the ones exiting the workforce to bear and raise children. By default, when they enter back into the workforce, they’re a few steps behind.

So it’s not necessarily the result of discriminatory employers, or chauvinist men, although that does happen sometimes, I think it’s because of a culture that encourages women to be the ones to exit and enter. So by the time men and women get, say twenty years down the road in their careers, they will simply be at different places. And not as much formal policies, as informal ways in which men and women differ. A lot of paid promotions and movement up the corporate ladder happens not so much through formal policy but through informal mechanisms. It’s who you know, and all those informal meetings that you either are or aren’t able to attend, where you get to know people and you get promoted. So of course there is still vestiges of good old fashioned discrimination, but I think for the most part, it’s just the result of women and men exiting and entering the workplace at different times.

Women tend to be located in different types of jobs that are simply paid less. The phrase, pink collar jobs, is said to be fields comprised of mostly women, and they’re widely considered to be paid less. We do know that social service type jobs are in fact paid less than your typical managerial position. When you’re comparing apples to apples though, let’s say Elaine and Eric, woman and man, and they’re both highly educated and experienced, and enter into corporate america at the same time, we can’t really say at that point that it’s pink collar jobs versus white collar jobs. I think that difference, is again explained by men and women exiting and entering at different times. Illegal pay discrimination happens, but it’s not nearly as prominent as it used to be, just because people are so aware of that.

In a recent STEM study, they found that applicants whose resumes had female names were offered a significantly lower starting salary than their male counterparts, who had virtually identical experience. Even the females doing the hiring were more likely to offer the women less. It’s shocking that even female scientists, and engineers, suffer from bias when it comes to women’s salaries.

Do you think this kind of inherent gender bias is a problem everyone who does hiring, including women, needs to be acutely aware of?

Obviously, yeah, this is a huge problem. This shouldn’t be happening and yet is. It makes me sad that female and male employers, are both falling under the guise, that once we hire a woman, versus a man, her chances of staying, are less. What that’s called, is statistical discrimination. That’s when someone implements discriminatory practices based on statistics.

Say I’m the manager of an engineering lab, and I have two applicants who are exceptional, statistically I know that the female employee, is more likely to leave within five years. It’s not that I don’t want her, I could actually want her very much so. But I’m a smart business person, I don’t want to five years down the road, have to retrain and look for someone else. So I’m going to discriminate, whether you call it that or not, right from the get go.

So yeah, that’s a huge problem. I think it takes a very concerted effort, for men and women in leadership positions, to say ‘wait a second, we know that that’s true statistically, but we don’t know that that’s the case, with this individual.’ I don’t think the discrimination is based on any belief that women are less capable, or that men and women are naturally different. The discrimination is based on businesses drive to stay in the business world, and do the best they can. Traditionally and statistically, the best choices are men. There are those few employers out there however, who stand up and say, ‘No, we’re not going to fall victim to that. We’re going to employ a steady female workforce.’ Just to start changing the tide, and I think a lot of those companies get a lot of attention, good attention. It’s definitely, unfortunately, still a problem.

What are some policy and practice changes HR professionals can implement, to avoid the common problem of women earning less than men for doing the same job?

HR can potentially have tremendous power in changing things for the better, if management gives them that power. I’ve interviewed enough human resource managers unfortunately, who say ‘look, I have every intention, to change the culture here. I want to create a work life balanced environment, I want to promote men and women equally. I’d like to promote women, perhaps even more so, to start balancing out upper management, but I can’t do that if I don’t have management that’s going to support me in doing that.’ We know, that workplace cultures, are set from those at the top. When those at the top say one thing, or have something written in a manual, but then highly discourage it through informal means, it makes HR a very difficult job.

So before we talk about HR, the first thing that every organization needs to know, is that management really has the most ability to alter policy practices. If you have a forward thinking manager, or even a forward thinking CEO, one of the leaders, then they will make it happen. So HR, not to make them sound like they have their hands completely tied, but to some extent, they do. That’s just based on the research I’ve done, and from what I’ve seen in my work balance studies. That’s the lense I’m coming from.

So the types of policies that HR needs to be highly aware of, first of all, what’s going on legally. The HR managers that I talked to, said that their job requires that they are constantly on top of what’s happening with workplace legislation, and employment legislation, and what’s happening regarding employment discrimination. So I think an HR pro, first and foremost, needs to be really on top of legislation policy that are coming from state and federal government. Because you want to be in compliance with that.

Another thing HR needs to be aware of, particularly when it comes to what we’re talking about, and that’s discrepancy in pay, or at least promotion. They have to put on, to some extent, an educator’s caps. The most successful HR pros I talked to, were the ones that held constant, sort-of brown bag, lunch-time, meetings, or workshops, where employees could come and ask questions, and learn about what’s available to them.

Also in terms of pay and policy, making sure there’s a constant checks and balances system. Does the HR person have access to the pay scale at the place that they’re working? Are they able to do salary surveys? Then they can find out whether or not people have the same pay, attached to the same title. So if your title is, for example is “bottle maker,” is a female bottle maker earning as much as a male bottle maker? We need to make sure that job titles and descriptions, aren’t linked to gender, they’re linked to activity, and the same pay. So I think an HR manager needs to be able to have access to all that data, and to be able to share it. The data shouldn’t be private, it should be public, at least within the organization. That HR person really needs to take charge about knowing what’s legal, what’s illegal, and have a good working relationship with their boss.

The HR person also needs to be in constant contact with people who are studying pay scales. They need to not only be in communication with their own supervisors, but with other industries so that they know ‘Oh so our competitor, down the street, this is what they’re doing over here.’ Not in the name of competition, but to ensure you’re following industry standards.

Another issue regarding women’s earnings in the workplace, is the so-called “glass ceiling” or the limit to which female employees can excel and rise up within a corporation.

What are some of the obstacles in the way of women being promoted to upper management within an organization?

This is a challenge, of course. Women need to be able to market, and promote themselves. They need to be bold enough, that any time a woman is going in to negotiate pay, that she knows how, and is confident in the fact that she has every right to be able to negotiate for pay. So for glass ceilings, a woman needs to be able to advocate for herself. Not to argue for what she wants, but to make a case for why she deserves it.

Socialization plays a role, but of course that’s changing. The millennial generation, is very different. With older generations however, women have been socialized to just accept what they’re given. They see the negotiating more as arguing or fighting. When in fact negotiation is expected, and is I think necessary when looking for promotion. So not seeing negotiating pay as a way of arguing, but as a general business practice. I think negotiation needs to happen.

I don’t like to take the legal road, but if a woman, or a man, is finding that they are completely eligible, and able to be promoted, but not being, to take it up with the EEOC. First start with the HR person, but take matters into your own hands. I’m not saying you need to sue your employer, but that’s why the EEOC, is such a beautiful in-between place. It's an organization that’s put in place to look after employees, and make sure employers are acting in an equitable way.

Not just women, but men as well. I think men will often not argue with a practice, because of fear of not looking like a good worker, or a team player. In order for a workplace culture to be changed, there has to be people who are saying, either individually or collectively “This is wrong.” I recognize that that’s a whole lot easier said than done. Negotiating, advocating, and marketing oneself, absolutely needs to take place.

When I applied for another job last year, I took a period of my life out, just to learn about how to negotiate on the job market. It’s expected.

What can those in management do to ease the advancement of women in the workplace?

I don’t think they need to ease it, I think they need to be advocates of it. Management, and again we’re giving management so much power, which I don’t necessarily like, and not all organizations are so top heavy, but management should ensure, that hiring committees, have both employers, and employees well represented.

You need to have your managers, and your supervisors, not just easing the advancement of women in the workplace, but promoting it, and taking risks. It’s not a matter of management sitting back and watching it happen. Management has to be proactive in saying, I want to change the face of this workplace. The way that we’re going to do that, is to have a more representative body of people in leadership. That’s really what begins to change a workplace. When leadership is diverse, not only with gender, but with racial/ethnic backgrounds as well.

What general policy changes, or types of training can HR implement, to ensure that women are hired, paid, and promoted fairly?

One thing that happens a lot in higher ed, and I hope that it is happening in industry as well, is women leadership development initiatives (WLDI) or sometimes called, women in leadership development institutes. What these do, is have leaders and supervisors within an organization identify women employees in their office, who show potential, and have expressed interest in moving up, and they can apply or they become a part of this initiative.

In this initiative, they take a, let’s say 6-week course, where during lunch, they meet, and each week, there’s a new topic and a new speaker basically saying ‘Here’s the roots upwards, toward growth within this organization.’ So you might have, say the president come in one day and speak. Or you might have someone come in and give a lecture on how to develop your leadership style. Or help you figure out what type of leadership style you have, because not everyone leads the same.

So WLDI is an actual, sort of “initiative” that is set-up where women are self-identified, or are identified by their bosses, as potential leaders. One thing that does, is increase the visibility of women. If you’re in a huge organization, such as a University, where there are hundreds, or even thousands of women in support staff roles, sometimes it takes an actual program, for these women to be identified, and noticed. So that’s one thing HR can do. Of course, it again, needs the support of the President, CEO, or president of HR, but it is an actual training course, that women could go through.

Why is it so culturally accepted for women to earn less than men in America?

That stems back very far. A lot of it has to do with, and this is going to be a bit of a history conversation, but I think it started during the time of the industrial revolution, when men and women really separated from the home and the workplace. Before the industrial revolution, men and women worked side by side. There was no difference in value, in the types of work that men and women did. Once we began to see the separation of that, with the creation of factories, and someone looking outside the home to find work, that type of pay, that outside pay, became highly valuable. Work within the home wasn’t paid, so you began instantly to see, just by where one was working, where the monetary value was placed.

Women have traditionally in our society, always worked. The 1950’s was an anomaly. Interestingly, in the 1950’s when we had men returning home from the war, and women returning to the home, we saw this complete separation between the public life and the private life. That particular decade, has really lodged itself into our cultural memory, as “the good old days.” So even though women have always worked, especially women of color, it’s kind of been permeated over time, that men’s work, because it’s outside the home, is monetarily rewarded, and that which is monetarily rewarded, tends to be more highly valued. So in some ways, that still kind of sticks.

Once men begin to take a more equal part in care of the home, we’ll see less of this gender separation, in the value of one’s work. And that’s changing, it’s definitely changing. again, even though historically women have always worked, that cultural expectation that women are the ones to care for the home, their work at home isn’t monetarily valued. Since a lot of the women’s work isn’t paid, that’s why we see this weird thing happening where teachers, secretaries, and nurses don’t get paid as much as X,Y, and Z. These positions are attached to this value of caretaking. I see this changing, I really do, because the majority of all men and women work. Less than ten percent of all households today, have the traditional male breadwinner, and the female homemaker. It’s just not the reality.

In general, the value on caretaking which is associated with taking care of the home, is less valued. When you see men enter into nursing and other “pink collar jobs” they tend to get promoted faster, and paid more. I encourage you to look into some of that research about men entering into pink collar jobs.

Are there global examples of gender pay equality? If so, what can we learn from countries who have achieved success in gender pay equality?

You cannot help but look to Scandinavian countries. Sweden and Norway are the trendsetters when it comes to gender equality, in multiple realms. Not just in the workplace, but in politics, religion and other major institutions. We can’t completely compare ourselves to these countries, because they’re socialist countries, not capitalist countries, so that plays a huge role. What you see there is the federal government subsidizing and investing a lot of money into childcare, healthcare, and parental care.

So if you have a child in Sweden for example, you’re given fifty-two weeks of paid leave. So that’s one year of paid leave, I believe, currently. The last time I researched it, the leave must be divided by both parents. So the first six months, must be taken by let’s say the mother, and the next six months must be taken by the father. Now in these countries such as Norway and Sweden, marriage isn’t as prominent as it is in this country. Cohabitation is seens as equal and viable to marriage. So it’s not always “husband and wife.”

So when you have a country that’s paying for, or allowing parents to, stay home from work to take care of children, that sends a huge message about gender equity, huge. A lot of that money goes into childcare, and quality childcare, that is paid for by the government. So men and women equally, are expected to care for children, raise children, and to be productive workers. Not only that, but we see in these countries, almost near gender parity in terms of governmental power and people in positions of power in politics. So I hate to say it, but a lot of it is because of government funding, subsidies and programs, that have changed the culture.

In the US, we offer one social program for caretaking called the Family Medical Leave Act, which was the first piece of legislation signed by president Clinton when he came into office. This was a huge step for the US because it offered twelve weeks of leave for any person, who works for an employer with over 50 employees, to take twelve weeks, to care for the birth of a child, the adoption of a child, or an elderly parent or family member. It was a huge thing, it was a great step. The problem is, it’s not paid. It’s completely unpaid, your job is supposedly protected, but there’s no pay. So the reality is, even though it’s a great step forward, the majority of Americans can’t use the FMLA. They simply can’t afford to.

So we are far behind all other industrialized nations when it comes to paid leave. In fact, Russia, China, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, all of these countries, offer forms of paid leave. We offer, zero paid leave. California, has been the first state to implement it at a state level. California takes a small amount, from every person’s paycheck, something like a dollar, and that money is then used to help subsidize paid leave for parents. The reason I talk about paid leave so much, is because that’s one type of policy, but it is, I think, a reflection of the governments value placed on the care of the home and the care of the workplace in an equitable way. It changes gender role expectations, it changes how we think about men and women. Those countries need to be studied. The tricky thing is, they’re not capitalists, so it would take quite a dramatic shift for our country to move towards that. But we do have states like California, who are moving forward with similar policy.

What can women do to advocate for themselves and ensure they’re paid fairly and promoted appropriately?

I hate saying this, to some extent, because it feels like somewhat of a cop out, but you have to be well informed. As a woman, you have to be well informed about the industry standards, what the average type of pay for the position you have, and whether or not you feel, from the steps being taken by supervisors, and in your evaluations, that you’re doing well. Most organizations will have some sort of bi-annual employee evaluations, that I’m going to go in, and be able to advocate for myself. If I do all this by myself, and then I speak with my HR manager and say, “Look, I need to ask for a promotion here. What are the steps I need to take to do that?” So being well-informed about the type of job you have and what the industry standard is in terms of pay. The also, being willing to ask for promotions, and negotiate that! Those are just some of the basic things women can do, to improve their personal standing in the workplace.


Interview Conducted By Emily Manke

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