The concept of equal pay is a simple one: if two people do the same job with the same proficiency, then they should be paid the same. There’s no need to introduce gendered pronouns in this equation – that factor is irrelevant. At least it should be.

The everyday experience of men, women and non-binary people around the world continues to demonstrate the complexities that persist in achieving equal pay. The fact is, there continues to be a very real pay gap between men and women. But, generally speaking, that gap is almost non-existent when comparing a man and a woman – let’s call them Ben and Belinda – doing the same job in the same company.

The gap emerges because it’s far more likely that Ben will continue to be promoted throughout his career into more senior, and therefore better paying roles, while Belinda is more likely to remain in lower to mid-level roles. Extrapolated across the entire working population, this pattern of promotion and pay crystallises into the gender pay gap.

The gap emerges because it’s far more likely that men continue to be promoted throughout their career into more senior, and therefore better paying roles, while women are more likely to remain in lower to mid-level roles. Click To Tweet

Korn Ferry’s analysis of its reward data, and other leading research, reveals the extent of the challenge that exists in pursuing equal pay: the inequality is structural, embedded into the processes that govern promotions and as well as career progression and choices more broadly. When it comes to progression, graph #1 shows the stark decrease in female participation at the executive level. Japan shows the biggest decrease (an 80 percent decrease from 25 percent participation in the overall database, compared to just 5 percent participation at the top levels), while China and Australia see a drop of around 30%.

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Pinch-hitting at individual role level is important but it’s not enough. We need to zoom out and focus on the career progression of women as a whole to ensure equality for Ben and Belinda becomes the simple equation it should be.

The big move: from specialist to manager

Looking at the data tracking career progression across genders within ASEAN is revealing. There’s a clear divergence between men and women in the progression from specialist to manager – the gateway promotion for bigger roles. Graph #2 shows that at this progression point, 49 percent of male specialists have the chance to be promoted to manager, but only 30 percent of female specialists have the chance to make the same career step. To put it another way, for each 100 male specialists, we have 49 male managers, while for each 100 female specialists we have only 30 female managers across ASEAN.

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The result is that the pool of female candidates for further promotion to director, through to the executive level shrinks significantly. There are simply fewer Belindas available to promote. So while the graph shows that the gap between the opportunity for promotion for men and women begins to contract, the structural damage has already been done.

Overtime, the pool of female candidates for further promotion to director or executive levels shrinks significantly. Click To Tweet

Of course, most organisations simply don’t have room to keep promoting people at the same rate as they reach more senior levels – in a meritocracy, only the best will progress. But if the promotion pool is already weighted in favour of men, then the meritocracy isn’t working. As a result, Ben, starting as a specialist in ASEAN has, on average, almost twice as likely the chance to be promoted to the director level during his career compared to Belinda, and almost three times more likely to end his career at the top executive level. The situation is quite similar when we look at the broader APAC region, with Japan standing out as having the least equal workforce in terms of career progression.

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The impact of structural inequality: Finance vs IT

The data on gender distribution in job families is also telling. Finance and IT sit at the more extreme ends of the gender imbalance spectrum, but the numbers play out differently in each case.

Looking at Korn Ferry’s reward data, women make up 60 percent of the working population in finance specialist roles across ASEAN. Despite this, men are still more likely to be promoted through to senior roles. Ben is 1.7 times more likely to be promoted from specialist to manager than Belinda. He’s then 1.8 times more likely to be promoted from manager to director. On the other hand, in IT roles, women make up 25 percent of specialists in ASEAN. Yet their chances of promotion are improved when compared to finance. While men are still ahead, their advantage is diminished – they’re 1.3 times more likely to be promoted to manager and then on to director.

Table 1 Chances of male VS female promotion Analysis of Korn Ferry Digital’s pay database*

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Distribution of men and women between traditionally men and women dominated professions creates both opportunity and risk for women in the future workforce. BCG research notes that this puts women at greater risk to losing their jobs to automation, as they hold the type of repetitive clerical and administrative roles that are likely to be impacted by technology. An IMF report shows that 11 percent of jobs currently held by women are at risk because of technology (versus 9 percent of roles hold by men) as women continue to be underrepresented in roles and sectors that anticipate job growth and can thrive in digital era, including engineering and ICT.

However the lack of women in IT, and STEM related roles more broadly, touches a deeper level of structural inequality within our society that holds girls and women back from pursuing STEM careers. BCG found that women hold 56 percent of university degrees overall but just 36 percent of STEM degrees. A broader cultural shift is required before women can activate the opportunities for promotion and reward in IT. Still, corporations can and should play a role in this change, especially given the increasing shortage of qualified employees. By supporting women’s development at early stages, organisations can help grow a much broader pool of specialists and future leaders.

Storming the structure

Long story short, the data shows that the existing one-size-fits-all approach to promotion is not working. The reason for this is at the heart of structural inequality: the ‘one-size’ that has been applied to these talent processes is not unbiased. It is quite specifically man-sized.

The existing one-size-fits-all approach to promotion is not working. Click To Tweet

In today’s workplace, the white, straight, able-bodied male – what we call the Reference Man – can no longer be the template for talent systems design.

To begin the hard work necessary to drive real change, organisations and societies need to embrace inclusive design. Right now, the shift in talent means there is a real opportunity to make change happen. Organisations are already moving to embed AI into their talent processes. These tools can help address pipeline issues through removing bias from acquisition through to performance management and promotion.

But unless these tools are carefully designed, they will have the opposite effect – perpetuating inbuilt gender bias and further widening the gap in the leadership pipeline.

Belinda deserves the same opportunity as Ben to ascend to the highest levels of leadership. But she needs the structural supports in place to make that opportunity real. Read Asleep at the Wheel to learn more about how inclusive design is the answer.

* The data was drawn from Korn Ferry Digital’s pay database, which contains data on more than 20 million job holders in 25,000 organisations from over 150 countries. Analysis of 2019 data.

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About the contributor

Miroslawa, heads the Asia Pacific for Pay and Engagement Delivery. She leads a regional team that runs employee engagement surveys, using the results to support organisational strategy application and action planning workshops. Mirka has over sixteen years of experience in helping clients analyse reward trends. Her expertise includes linking engagement data and building employee engagement programs to support business performance.

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