How can we close the gender benefits gap?

28 sept. 2023


How can we close the gender benefits gap?
Jessica Beebe

Freelance writer, reporter

Many workplaces have made large strides when it comes to their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. However, gender inequality has been part of society for so long that it remains a gigantic hurdle for many companies — not only in terms of the wage gap but also benefit packages and job perks. The cost of living crisis is “twice as bad for women” as men, with twice as many women relying on additional income streams to get by, according to a survey of 6,000 professionals in North America conducted by Robert Walters, a global recruiting firm. When it comes to benefits, the survey shows that men are twice as likely to receive monetary-based perks as women, and that 17% more men receive bonuses in line with their expectations. These perks include retirement fund contributions, bonuses, equity or stock options, and mortgage allowances. Of the men who participated in the survey, 25% had a 401k retirement plan, compared to just 19% of women. Plus, 19% of men had a bonus scheme versus 11% of women, while 12% of men had access to equity in their company compared to 6% of women, and 11% of men received a mortgage allowance versus 6% of women.

It isn’t just women in the US who are affected, according to Coral Bamgboye, global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Robert Walters. “There remains a gender pay gap within nearly every country worldwide,” she says. “And things are certainly moving and progressing, but the pace is far too slow, so it’s not a surprise to see that there is a disparity when it comes to benefits.”

The benefits gap

Many US white-collar employers could do more to end gender disparity in the workplace. That may be easier said than done, however, given the biases that are ingrained into society, which take time to review, understand, and unlearn. “We still have ongoing bias that persists,” Bamgboye says. “And even though things have moved more in the right direction, bias doesn’t just disappear overnight.”

Bamgboye points out that “occupational segregation”— historical, societal, and gender norms and expectations — persists, informing the different roles that men and women take up across industries. The tech industry, for example, which is dominated by men, is largely leading the charge in terms of progressive benefits. Bamgboye says that one of the main reasons a gender wage gap continues to exist is because of the lack of representation across leadership. “Women continue to be underrepresented within senior roles, so they are less able to influence decisions around things like what benefits might even suit women,” Bamgboye says. “Plus, monetary benefits are often linked with higher seniority. So there’s a disproportion there as well.”

Negotiating a better deal

Another factor affecting the level of salary, bonuses and other benefits that women receive is their willingness to negotiate, according to the Robert Walters survey. “The survey found that men were far more likely to negotiate for a higher salary,” Bamgboye says. They also negotiate benefits – unlike women. “I think there’s a societal conditioning there, and a fear of backlash [from the employer] that feeds into this,” she says. According to the Robert Walter survey, most professional women who received a pay increase this year got below the current inflation rate, with 32% receiving a pay increase of 1-5%. Just 9% of those received a rise of 21% or more — compared to 19% of men.

It comes as little surprise that it is not straightforward for women to ask for a raise as a woman’s experience of the process differs significantly from a man’s. One-fifth of women who participated in the Robert Walter study said they were hesitant about negotiating a salary because they didn’t believe their employer would give them a raise. And double that number of women stated that a lack of confidence or a feeling of embarrassment came into play during negotiations for better pay. “There’s a lot of evidence showing that men tend to negotiate a lot more than women do,” says recruiting professional Linnea Bywall, head of people at Alva Labs, a platform for candidate assessment with operations based in Stockholm, Sweden.

What can be done?

Ultimately, Bywall says it is up to the employer to fix the issue. “To create a fairer workspace, maybe we need to actually help women to negotiate, instead of just expecting them to,” Bywall says. “We need to do more to level the playing field. And the employer is the one with the muscle to actually make changes, so the responsibility should not be on the individual to drive this change.”

Employers can work to make the negotiating process less intimidating. Bywall and Bamgboye agree that training managers to understand the importance of equal benefits and transparency is key. At the same time, it’s important to ensure that company policies are clear and are kept up to date so that employees understand what the company offers and what they can feel comfortable requesting.

Keeping company policies public helps to hold employers accountable, according to Bywall. At Alva, there is external benchmarking that details salary ranges. When the information is out in the open, it is easier for employees to understand their value in the marketplace and make appropriate demands. “When the organization can be public with this sort of information, it’s a lot more likely that we empower the employees who are less comfortable with salary negotiations,” Bywall says. “So, my advice is to invite companies to dare to be public with their policies rather than try to conduct salary negotiations under the table.”

How to move forward

Bamgboye says that the solution to the problem of the gender gap in benefits is complex. “If it was simple, I think people would have figured it out by now,” she says. “It doesn’t just easily boil down to ‘teach women how to negotiate’ or ‘train those in positions of power.’ It’s about workplaces revisiting their guidelines, adjusting their policies, and updating their practices that have probably been in place for many years.”

US-based organizations could look to other countries for inspiration on gender equality at work. “Countries in Northern Europe are at the top of the list when it comes to most equal pay between genders in the world,” Bywall says, noting that countries such as Norway, Finland, and Sweden are ahead of the US in this respect. “These countries have come much further in addressing the gender pay gap and related issues,” Bywall says, “but some old tendencies nevertheless exist everywhere, and even these places have a long way to go.”

Bamgboye agrees. “There are some progressive targets around gender equity that come out of the EU, but I’m not sure that any countries are really progressive in this space. It’s something that all organizations – in all countries and across all sectors – should continue to focus on,” she says.

Healthcare benefits for women are also a key factor in this conversation. There is age-old inequity in this subsection of benefits, and negotiating for healthcare access can be particularly daunting. “How do we make sure that we are tackling those workplace taboos that disproportionately impact women?” Bamgboye asks. “We need to make sure there are guidelines in place to approach issues like reproductive care, maternity leave, and childcare, and we need to help managers understand what conversations to have. Women take the larger share of caregiving responsibilities … This leads to interruptions in women’s careers, taking time off to look after children, which has an impact on earning potential as well as career progression.”

What employers can do now

Companies could make stronger efforts to put women in leadership positions, and implement targeted programs that focus on the development of women at work. In the meantime, employers can examine their existing benefits packages to identify any disparities from a gender perspective. “Looking at data to understand if women have equal access to benefits is key,” Bamgboye says. “Companies should be regularly reporting on progress toward achieving equity. This is a very broad topic and is quite complex and interwoven. But we have got to begin somewhere.”

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