Earlier this month, the CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao, announced the company would no longer allow employees to negotiate their salaries. Pao explained the move was an attempt to close the pay gap between women and men since, based on her experience, women are worse negotiators than men and as she put it, “From what I’ve heard from women, they …feel like there’s no way to win.”
Pao’s claim that some women lose out at the negotiating table is correct. And her instinct to take action and use her power as CEO to level the playing field is admirable. But her response misses the point of what’s really happening for women at work. Women don’t need less negotiating power. They need more. And no one woman – CEO or front line worker – can solve this problem alone. Many hardworking women lose out on wages not because they are ineffective negotiators. Rather, they, along with their male colleagues, lack the power to come together to raise wages collectively.
As secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a woman who has dealt with her share of office politics, I understand the challenges that Ellen Pao describes on the job. But I have a very different solution.
I got my start in the labor movement working with the electrical workers union (IBEW) on an organizing campaign of clerical workers at Portland General Electric (PGE) in my home state of Oregon shortly after I graduated from college. While the power linemen at PGE were all union members, the clerical workers -- mainly women -- were not.
It became apparent that the linemen received good pay and benefits thanks to their union contract, but the clerical workers did not have that collective power, and lacked leverage to negotiate better pay and conditions in the workplace that they deserved. It wasn’t a big leap for the clerical workers to realize they too could raise their wages and secure benefits through a union contract like their linemen peers.
The labor movement views the struggle for women’s equality as a shared fight, especially considering women are the sole or primary breadwinners for 40% of families in the United States. Nearly 7 million women have a voice on the job due to their union membership and women in unions are more likely than their nonunion peers to have access to paid sick leave and family leave among other benefits.
And in direct response to Ellen Pao’s concern about the wage gap, union negotiated contracts narrow the pay gap between men and women significantly. In fact, a typical woman union member earns $222 a week more than a nonunion working woman. Most industries that are predominantly female like fast food and home health care pay low wages that often don’t even cover the basic necessities of life. These low wages act to keep women’s salaries down in every industry, not just in low wage work.
The tech economy has changed a lot of things -- from bitcoin to social media. But, unfortunately, some things have stayed the same. It’s hard to erase sex discrimination with a simple rule change and even harder to improve working conditions when employees aren’t allowed to sit across the table from their boss and negotiate. But there’s a tried and true remedy to these problems. Why shouldn’t the women of Silicon Valley join a union if they want to close the gender pay gap? And why shouldn’t they sit with their male colleagues and raise wages for workers across the board? Or negotiate workplace policies that ensure mothers and fathers are able to succeed at work and take care of their families?
Many high tech workers have already said yes to a collective voice: From NASA engineers to professional, technical and other highly skilled workers at Boeing, and computer scientists and technicians at AT&T. Tech workers have enjoyed the benefits of union membership for decades. Currently groups of Silicon Valley workers such as shuttle drivers are trying to organize to gain a stronger voice on the job.
Even professionals at online blogs like Gawker are unionizing for a voice at work. If workers in new media can do it, anyone can. If people continue to reimagine what a union can look like in their workplace and adapt the value of collective action to meet modern challenges -- perhaps Reddit, too, can think about narrowing the pay gap by helping women and men negotiate better pay and a fair workplace through a union.