Early in her career, Melissa Hooley, CPA, CGMA, and her husband at the time, also a CPA, worked for the same organization. Every year they each received a letter detailing their raises--and every time her husband got a higher increase than she did, even though they were at the same level and had nearly identical backgrounds, performance reviews, and expertise.
"Each year I had to go in and discuss the issue," said Hooley, who has since changed firms and is now partner-in-charge of employee benefit plan services at ACM LLP in Denver. "Every year I had a conversation with my mentor (a male partner at the organization), and he always ensured adjustments were made." Although she appreciated the organization's adjusting her compensation and recognizing the unintentional bias, she found it exasperating to have to make a case for herself year after year, especially with the knowledge that others with the same qualifications didn't experience the same problem.
THE PAY GAP IN ACCOUNTING
As Hooley's example illustrates, the gender pay gap in accounting is real. Among accountants and auditors, women made 78% as much as men did, according to a 2018 report by the American Association of University Women. In the United Kingdom, the publication Accountancy Age found a 21.5% gap overall between men's and women's salaries.
Many organizations have unintended gender pay discrepancies in their compensation structure, which they may not even be aware of. But there are compelling reasons for organizations to assess their compensation practices and take an intentional approach to pay equity. Equitable pay is more than a matter of simple fairness; organizations may lose valuable talent if women employees become aware of a wage gap and leave. Organizations with a wage gap may also gain a reputation for pay disparity or unfairness, making it difficult to recruit top talent.
"Your competitors have an advantage if your people are underpaid, because they can lure away the best people or the strongest entry-level staff simply by offering market rates," noted Mary Bennett of MLBennett Consulting LLC in Asheville, N.C., a former chair of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee and a consultant to CPA firms and other organizations on diversity and inclusion. "If you don't create a sense of belonging and fairness, people do notice."
Organizations that retain their best people also have more to offer clients. "As a profession, if we genuinely want to bring value to clients, the creativity that comes from diversity of thought is critical," said Wendy Eversole, CPA, CGMA, partner and COO of HORNE LLP, working out of the firm's Ridgeland, Miss., office. "Pay parity is a big part of ensuring we have that diversity."
THE CAUSES OF DISPARITY
Often, there are concrete reasons why individual men and women with similar positions are paid differently. Various factors can affect pay, such as cost-of-living differentials in local markets or pay variations based on specialties; an employee's education level, level of expertise, or practice area; and the quality of an employee's performance.
However, some gaps in compensation have nothing to do with performance or qualifications. Some may result from unconscious bias or other misunderstandings in the compensation process. In other instances, pay gaps may arise if female professionals fail to negotiate a higher salary on hiring or a larger increase in a performance review than men do. (As a Glassdoor survey found, 68% of women accepted a salary offer without negotiating, compared with 52% of men.) This disparity will only grow over time if professionals receive raises or bonuses based on their current salaries. All employees should be prepared to negotiate for the salary they think they deserve (see the sidebar, "How Individuals Can Ensure They're...