Yet this statistic has been questioned and even denounced across the political, academic, and business spheres because the math is tricky. Differences between industries, roles, tenure, performance, career trajectory, hours worked and time off for family make it difficult to say explicitly that women are paid less than men under identical circumstances.
According to anecdotal experiences, many women have reason to suspect that they are not paid on par with men doing exactly the same work. My company, Fairygodboss, conducted a survey in 2015 that found just 39 percent of women feel they're compensated equally to their male peers. (Disclaimer: I should note here that Salesforce is a paying customer of Fairygodboss.)
How can we deduce whether men and women with comparable experience in comparable roles earn the same amount? The answer lies only in the tightly protected internal data of U.S. corporations. Most companies will not deign to open their books to determine whether unequal pay is a reality within their walls, let alone release the results.
That's why the story of the compensation audit undertaken by CEO Marc Benioff at Salesforce is so extraordinary. Prompted by requests from key female executives, Benioff stood up publicly and announced that Salesforce would undertake put his company's reputation on the line to determine whether there was indeed a pay gap at Salesforce.
Even more extraordinary: He wholeheartedly accepted the findings that a gender wage gap in comparable roles existed at his company, and he put a plan--with $3 million in funding--in place to resolve it.
The well-known story of Salesforce's pay gap audit is valuable to hear just on its own merit. But even better is a chance to get pointers directly from the Salesforce team on how other companies can undertake a similar compensation audit.
I had a chance to learn more from Cindy Robbins, EVP, Global Employee Success (aka Human Resources) at Salesforce, who was one of the main architects and champions of their work. Here are some tips that Robbins shared about what other companies should know if they're thinking about undertaking a compensation audit:
1. CEO buy-in is a must
Robbins and her colleague, Leyla Seka Senior Vice President and General Manager of Desk.com at Salesforce, built a strong case to persuade Benioff to undertake the compensation audit. Fortunately, Benioff had shown himself to be a strong supporter both of women in the workplace, and also transparency.
"It's important to understand your company's appetite for transparency," Robbins told us. "I'm really lucky to work at a company, and for a CEO, that is open to having these conversations and doing what is right. However, not every company has a culture of transparency."
Throughout the process, the strong connection between HR and the CEO was an essential ingredient to success. Says Robbins, "If Leyla and I hadn't been able to approach Marc about equal pay, we may never have been able to conduct the audit."
2. Develop a rigorous but objective process
Many have observed the difficulty of comparing salaries to determine "fairness" or "equality." But Robbins and her Salesforce team dove into the data to create a quantitative way to standardize and compare compensation data.
"There are countless numbers of individual variables--for example degree obtained or school attended," says Robbins. "Because we wanted to keep the salary assessment as objective as possible, we focused only on where there were statistically significant differences in pay based on objective factors."
3. Be Gender Neutral
Ultimately, the Salesforce work was not just about fair pay for women. It was about fair pay for everyone.
"Our assessment showed that we needed to adjust some salaries--for both men and women," said Robbins. "Approximately 6.6 percent of employees received adjustments, and roughly the same number of women and men were impacted."
By including all employees at Salesforce in the scope of the work, Robbins created company-wide support for her initiative.
So what's the payoff of a highly public compensation audit?
"We received positive feedback from our employees who are proud to work for a company that prioritizes equality as a core value," Robbins told us.
And Salesforce continues to receive extremely high marks from its female employees. According to scores from its own employees, it's one of the highest-ranked companies for women in Silicon Valley.