How to know whether your company is paying women less than they do men, and what to do about it.

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Everyone from Beyoncé to President Obama is talking about it these days: the gender wage gap. That’s because it’s real and it’s widespread. Here in Washington, women earn even less than the national average for equal work performed by men.

Women in Washington state who work a full-time, year-round job are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns on average, according to analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families earlier this year. That’s compared to the national average of 79 cents.

Here in Washington, women earn even less than the national average for equal full-time work performed by men — 77 cents for every dollar a man earns on average, according to analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families earlier this year. That’s compared to the national average of 79 cents.

And the gender wage gap for minorities in Washington is even larger, with African-American women paid 61 cents, Latina women paid 46 cents, and Asian-American women paid 71 cents for every dollar paid to white men on average.

Some companies with local presences like Zillow, and GoDaddy have made their efforts to close their gender wage gaps public, but some companies are less forthcoming. So how do you know if there’s a wage gap at your company?

“This is a complex issue, and there’s not just one thing that employees can do,” says Emma Mayberry, the director of gender equity initiatives at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce who heads up the 100% Talent initiative, in partnership with the Women’s Funding Alliance, aimed at closing the gender wage gap in King County.

Reasons for wage gaps are wide-ranging, from unconscious bias to gender discrimination to the effects of parental leave policies and the pattern of women working more often in positions that are generally lower paying. Mayberry says that while there’s no one “silver bullet” to solve this multifaceted problem, if an employee has concerns about a gender wage gap at her company, the first step is research. “Certainly, frank conversations with friends, networks, peers, about what your company is doing on this front can be a great starting point,” she says.

Question your employer

Janet Chung, legal and legislative counsel for for Legal Voice, an organization advocating for the rights of women and girls in the Pacific Northwest, agrees that arming yourself with information is a good idea. She also says to bring this information directly to your employer to see what can be done.

“If you have a suspicion of a gap where you work, know that you can work with your employer to ask questions about how pay decisions are made,” says Chung.

Legally, Chung says, you can’t be retaliated against for asking about pay decisions. However, find out first whether your company has a policy prohibiting you from sharing salary information with your co-workers. Even if it does, you can still research average salary ranges based on the market through websites or the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see how yours stacks up.

“Whether you are negotiating for an initial position or looking for a promotion, there are things we can start asking employers for that will help close the gender wage gap for everyone,” Chung says. “Ask questions like: ‘What’s the range for this job? What is it based on?’ Do your research to find the market rate. It can also help to ask just in general, not just on behalf of yourself.”

Mid-level managers play a role

Mayberry, with the Chamber of Commerce, agrees that an important part of fighting the wage gap is advocating for a more transparent and equal policy around pay in general, not just your own salary. She says that mid-level managers especially can play an important role in closing the wage gap.

“Many of the ways that have been demonstrated to really work in closing the wage gap surround a lot of what mid-level managers are trained to handle. Issues like workplace flexibility and unconscious bias,” says Mayberry. “Direction might come from company leadership, but the people in the middle who are implementing these policies play a really important role.”

By seeking out and accessing resources that examine those issues, fairness can become an idea that the whole company is thinking about, not just those at the top, Mayberry adds.

That’s why all employees at companies who sign on to the 100% Talent initiative have access to resources through the initiative website on best practices to employ in an effort to obtain equal pay for equal work companywide.

Legislating equality

Chung, at Legal Voice, says her organization is advocating for changes at the policy level to bring about more equality in pay. Some of the legislation they’ve focused on for the past several years would end discrimination of pregnant employees (a big cause of lost wages for women), require companies to have more transparent pay policies and require a pay disparity to be due to a difference in the actual job performed.

“The goal [of our work] is not that everyone can go file a suit if there’s a disparity, because that’s a hard row to hoe,” says Chung. “But to allow more people to get the information they need and to be empowered to negotiate for more and to know more about what their work is worth.”

If workers are concerned about job discrimination, Chung recommends resources like the City of Seattle  Office of Labor Standards, the Fair Work Center, the Washington State Human Rights Commission and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. While closing the wage gap is an extremely complex problem, Mayberry encourages everyone in the region — women and men, executives and employees — to look into ways they can help close or reduce the wage gap in their own companies.

“Closing the wage gap puts more money back into the hands of consumers and invests it back into the community, it also helps companies reduce turnover and boost employee morale and productivity,” she says.

Beyond the economic reasons Mayberry says the Seattle area in particular should be paying close attention to this problem.

“Generally speaking, this region is an inclusive place and we have inclusive values. Those are the kinds of values that bring this issue into practice. It’s going to take all of us together, community partners, businesses, and individuals contributing together on a variety of fronts to really move the needle. But we’re definitely making some progress,” Mayberry says.