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Discussing Equal Pay in the Meetings and Events Industry

By Maura Keller Original Article

The concept of the gender pay gap has long been a point of contention across all industries and within businesses of all sizes. And the meetings and events industry is no exception. While the gender pay gap is certainly real, it is also a much more complex situation than most recognize. Certainly some of the gender pay gap can be attributed to outright discrimination, while other aspects of the pay gap are simply the result of the tangible differences between men and women and their individual work ethic. Just ask Elizabeth Sherry, a meeting and event planner and program coordinator for Twin Cities Wedding and Event Professionals. Sherry has been paid partly by commission her entire career and thinks people make as much money as the work they decide to put in.

“In my experience meeting and event planners are predominantly women,” Sherry says. “If there are differences in wages, it comes from individuals who choose to ask for raises on their base salary and those that don’t. If there is a sales or commission structure to one’s wage, it is based on how great they are at selling their product.”

Olivia Jaras, founder of Salary Coaching for Women and bestselling author of “Know Your Worth, Get Your Worth: Salary Negotiation for Women,” agrees. Jaras thinks the biggest issue being faced by the gender pay gap within the meeting and events industry and other industries is one that is not often talked about: “Too often we think that the only reason we have a gap is because we lack government regulations and company transparency, but we ignore that women hold some of the responsibility in the equation as well; mainly knowing what they’re worth and knowing how to advocate for it,” Jaras says. “So often we blame the difference on gender, when the reality is that there are no two candidates that will ever be equal in terms of qualifications and background and what they bring to the table.”

Javier Delgado, founder of PeopleToo, says, generally speaking, the top issues facing the gender pay gap in the United States, which stands at about 80 cents to the dollar, has been creeping up since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, when the pay gap was at 59 cents to the dollar. “Issues like male-dominated industries, population percent at work, biases and inherent past habits also have caused this difference,” Delgado says. “And various other factors like region, industry, discrimination, type of jobs, physical requirements and education are all factors that are involved in the pay gap.”

When talking about pay gap differences, it’s also important to understand the difference between wage discrimination and wage difference. Quite simply, discrimination is implying that there’s deliberate unfair action being taken, while wage differences might be naturally occurring due to skill discrepancies.

Wage differences have several sources including training, education, experience and job availability. Kathleen Caminiti, partner at the national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips and co-chair of the firm’s Pay Equity Practice Group, says some wage differences are the result of personal choice.

Wage discrimination can be intentional discrimination — when a manager decides to pay a man more than a woman on the belief that a man has a family to support. According to Caminiti, wage discrimination does not necessarily require intent to discriminate; the equal pay statutes make it unlawful to pay a woman performing the same job as a man less compensation in the absence of legitimate, bona fide factors that justify the pay disparity.

It is important to note that the wage gap evaluates all aspects of compensation, not just salary. “Not all wage inequality is unlawful,” Caminiti says. “Some wage disparities are the result of personal choice, such as the course of study in college or the decision to work part-time to care for children or aging parents — roles more typically assumed by women.” While it is lawful to pay better performers more money, the key is to document the reason or decision and to be sure that the employees are on a level playing field.

“In the meeting and events industry, it also is important to review not just salary, but also incentives and other perks — even including travel perks such as access to clubs, expense accounts and first class accommodations,” Caminiti says.

Key Issues Facing the Industry

The top gender pay gap issues facing the meeting and events industry and others are three-fold, and include:

Identifying whether a company has a gender pay gap.

Determining the root cause for the pay gap.

Compliance with the legal requirements for equal pay that have been enacted in states and cities throughout the country.

As Caminiti explains, identifying whether there is a pay gap can be tricky and, if possible, a company should work with legal counsel to conduct a privileged pay equity audit in an effort to maximize confidentiality.

“This can help identify jobs that are substantially similar and also evaluate whether there are legitimate business factors that justify any pay disparities identified,” Caminiti says. Next, determining the root cause for the pay gap is essential.

Caminiti says there are key questions employers need to ask, including:

Are there barriers to opportunity, such that men have superior opportunities to earn more, including access to high profile clients and events?

How are opportunities distributed — is it a merit-based system?

Is there an unconscious bias at work, such as a belief that women with children do not want to travel?

“It is not enough for base compensation to be equal; rather total compensation, including bonuses and incentives are included,” Caminiti says. Finally, compliance with the extensive legal requirements is daunting because the most significant developments in the area of pay equity involve legislation at the state and sometimes city level. For example, New York City and the State of New York have very robust pay equity laws designed to close the pay gap. These laws impact not just the rate of pay, but also govern the interview process, salary setting and performance appraisals.

Speaking from Sherry’s personal sales experience, she stresses that if a meeting planner puts in the time, it reflects in their wage. “A strategy that happens often in this industry is job hopping for better wages and promotions. In order to do this successfully, I believe growing your network of ‘Who you know’ is so important to one’s success,” Sherry says. “I have worked at four places in the last five years and have finally landed in my dream job. I was only able to achieve this by leaning on my connections.”

Effective Strategies

While government and organizational responsibility surrounding the pay gap issue is relevant, Jaras thinks the most important component within the gender pay gap issue is that women should know their worth and they know how to advocate for it.

“The truth is, if you don’t know what you’re asking for, why would anyone give it to you?” Jaras says. “The biggest challenge right now is getting women to understand how much responsibility they own in this equation. The reality is if women know what they’re worth and how to persuade others to give it to them, we wouldn’t have a gap — other than standardly occurring deviations.”

Emily Howe, corporate gender strategist at Portola Advisors, says the problem of measuring gender pay gaps is both fact and perception — the fact that accurate adjustments for apples-to-apples work is very difficult, and people perceive it as imprecise.

“The reality is that pay gap metrics do get people’s attention, and so leaders may say ‘Well, even if it’s imprecise, let’s go ahead and do the measurement and see what it says,’” Howe says. “But as a result, even if the metric generates an initial splash, people are quietly saying to themselves ‘Yeah, but … ’ — so it doesn’t actually help the organization make hard choices and behave differently.”

Howe says the problem in pay gap analysis is in trying to “level” or “normalize” white-collar work. As Howe explains, in most corporate, managerial and creative professions, including the meetings and events industry, you can’t create clear apples-to-apples comparisons between work. Therefore you can’t tell if there’s a meaningful gap.

“Many firms that do pay gap measurements are frankly selling snake oil,” Howe says. “Although they claim to normalize on a lot of factors, most organizations don’t have the data that documents enough of the skill differences, lateral moves or scope of responsibility differences to enable accurate normalization.” Adjusting for individual differences in project load, client load, the complexity of responsibilities, etc., requires far more intensive analysis than most firms, or internal teams, are going to do.

Caminiti says the key is to level set opportunities and pay. She recommends that employers: first, review basic human resource practices and companies should eliminate salary history inquires because setting salary based on prior salary history tends to perpetuate the gender gap; second, conduct a privileged pay equity audit to evaluate on a job-by-job basis whether employees in substantially similar jobs are paid the same, and periodically review positions every few years. “Third, if you find a gender wage gap, correct the gap, perhaps with pay adjustments, perhaps starting with bonuses,” Caminiti says. “Finally, take steps to identify and correct the root cause for the differential. For example, in the meeting and events industry establish a neutral means of distributing opportunities.”

On the Horizon

Some of the biggest challenges facing those within the meetings and events industry as it relates to eliminating the gender pay gap are commitment and vigilance. As Caminiti explains, the first fundamental challenge in narrowing the wage gap is determining whether an organization is committed to the issue. As a threshold matter, it requires commitment from top management, including finance, legal and human resources to evaluate whether the organization has troublesome wage disparities.

“Any company that decides to conduct a compensation evaluation must be prepared to fix the problem if a gender wage gap is found,” Caminiti says. “Narrowing the wage gap will not be easy because it could disrupt compensation practices that may have been standard practice for a company for years. Significantly, most laws provide that a company cannot reduce a man’s salary to remedy a wage gap.”

Delgado recommends companies improve their compensation philosophies, update wage scales and restructure broadband grades and percentiles in compensation strategies.

“Incorporate fairness in the culture of the company and in writing by senior
management,” Delgado says.

For Howe, pay gaps are the result — not the cause — of workplace gender issues. They indicate deeper issues that have accumulated to produce pay disparities. “In fact, while pay equalization efforts come from a good place, they shortly leave companies with the same wage gap again. Because the underlying issues that lead to a pay disparity — like under-promoting qualified women or overlooking talented women for high-prestige projects — will still be there if left unaddressed,” Howe says.

To reduce workplace gender bias — including resulting pay gaps — Howe says companies must identify, address and measure the behaviors, norms, attitudes and policies that disadvantage working women. Howe adds that these underlying issues are not only the root causes of the pay gap, but they also create a cultural foundation where disrespect, mistreatment, harassment and even more severe abuses are likely.

So what does the future hold for the pay gap discrepancy? Experts agree that the gender pay gap will be an issue that organizations and employers will face for the next decade. And while state and federal laws will continue to impose obligations to force employers to address and minimize the gender pay gaps, Caminiti predicts a substantial uptick in litigation, which will be costly both in terms of legal defense costs and exposure to damages. As Caminiti explains, over time, the gender pay gap will narrow and may disappear, but that will take a long time and substantial litigation likely will be the catalyst for change.

“To truly combat the gender issues that lead to a pay gap, and to create a place where ambitious, talented women thrive, a multipronged approach is necessary,” Howe says. “Organizations that take gender equity seriously need to engage several groups to play crucial and intertwined roles to reshape corporate policy, company and team culture and managerial and individual biases.” C&IT

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