Have We Fixed These Workplace Issues?

New workplace research seems to suggest that two current employment hot topics aren’t as pervasive as some data suggest–though the numbers themselves are likely to be met with some skepticism.

Among the workplace issues recently making headlines is the gender pay gap. The topic has become a target for businesses that are seeking to embrace diversity and inclusion, as well as by lawmakers looking to do the same. While numbers vary, many workplace-equality advocates cite statistics that a woman makes, on average, 80 cents for every dollar a man earns.

According to a new report cited by the New York Times, that trend may not necessarily reach into the upper echelons of a company.

Sandra Mortal from the University of Alabama, Vishal K. Gupta of the University of Mississippi and researcher Xiaohu Guo studied pay rates of chief executives at 2,282 public companies between 1996 and 2014. The researchers found “no significant difference between male and female CEO compensation,” after having controlled for factors such as tenure, and characteristics of the firm and board.

In an interview with the Times, Mortal said she was surprised by the findings. She was careful to note that the study doesn’t belie the reality that many women face workplace inequalities as they seek to climb the corporate ladder. However, she said, “once they actually are there [at the top],” the study suggests the compensation playing field may be more level than in other areas of the workplace.

Gupta speculated the visibility of the CEO role could be a factor contributing to more equal pay. Another theory the Times referenced that has gained traction among academics is that a “premium” has been applied because fewer women are in CEO roles. However, the new report doesn’t tackle the causes–or consequences–of men largely outnumbering women in CEO roles.

Another recent report that requires some reading between the lines is an analysis by Bloomberg of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2017 stats on workplace sexual harassment. The EEOC fielded 9,600 complaints last year–a 41-percent drop from the 16,000 it reported 20 years ago. The number of complaints dropped in every one of the EEOC state offices, though there were some big gaps; for instance, complaints fell by 96 percent in Maine and 19 percent in Michigan.

On its face, the report would suggest the problem of workplace sexual harassment is dissipating, which would contrast the sharp uptick in public awareness of attention to the issue in recent months. However, what the data may actually reflect is that companies are increasingly developing policies to handle complaints of workplace sexual harassment internally–meaning fewer workers take their cases to the EEOC. The Economic Policy Institute also notes that more than half of American companies require workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that dictate employees must address workplace complaints through an arbitration process, instead of the courts.

While debate persists about arbitration–some victims’ advocates contend it favors the employer while others cite the benefit of the confidentiality of such processes–it also points to the need for education about data collection and reporting.

University of San Diego labor and employment law professor Orly Lobel told Bloomberg that the current EEOC numbers create a “false illusion that we’ve sort of solved the problem because we have the hotlines, we have systems in place, we’ve done the training.”

As any HR professional concerned about workplace sexual harassment will acknowledge, that’s far from the truth.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.