In 2017, Google was accused of gender pay discrimination by the U.S. Department of Labour. Later that year, Google employees conducted their own informal salary review, finding that women were paid less than men. In January of last year, several women filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging it underpays women. Which is why a New York Times story on Monday titled “Google Moves to Address Wage Equity, and Finds It’s Underpaying Many Men” was surprising. And, ultimately, misleading.
The story concerned the findings of Google’s 2018 pay equity analysis, which looked at 91 per cent of employees. Compared to 2017, when Google spent $US270,000 ($380,843) on 228 employees to correct systemic pay inequities, the company spent nearly $US10 ($14) million on over 10,000 employees last year. In a blog post on Monday, the company attributed this to bump, in part, to one specific job code: Level 4 Software Engineer, a particularly large category in the company. (A Google spokesperson couldn’t specify exactly what percentage of workers the job code represents, but parent company Alphabet said it employed 98,771 people at the end of 2018.)
“Within this job code, men were flagged for adjustments because they received less discretionary funds than women,” the company said. To conclude from this that many men at Google are underpaid is an oversimplification. As Google mentioned in its blog post, an employee’s compensation is algorithmically-generated. From there, managers are able to increase an employees’ salary, bonus, and/or equity through discretionary funds. Among Level 4 Software Engineers, more women were given these additional funds than their male counterparts, so Google adjusted for men in this category.
This doesn’t tell us whether men, women, or any other groups in any other job codes are paid less at Google, it just indicates that in this specific job code, which comprises a substantial (but unspecified) percentage of the company, the discrepancy in discretionary funds allotted to women was statistically significant enough for Google to adjust it in favour of men. We still don’t know why women in this job code were receiving more of these additional funds, but there are plenty of reports indicating why that may be.
“Our pay equity analysis ensures that compensation is fair for employees in the same job, at the same level, location and performance,” Google wrote in its blog post. “But we know that’s only part of the story. Because levelling, performance ratings, and promotion impact pay, this year, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of these processes to make sure the outcomes are fair and equitable for all employees.”
A Google spokesperson confirmed that they don’t know yet why managers gave more discretionary funds to women in this job code, which is why the company is undergoing a more thorough review, to better understand how things like levelling might be connected to the discretionary funds. The class-action lawsuit filed by former Google employees in 2017 alleged that Google systematically pays women less than men performing similar jobs, while also keeping them in lower-paying and lower-level positions. The lawsuit also alleged that men are promoted more often than women who are just as qualified.
It’s possible that women in this job code should have been promoted to a higher level position. As we saw in the class-action lawsuit, this isn’t a novel claim. And if that is the case, Google isn’t achieving pay parity by subsequently giving bonuses to their male counterparts—they are simply reverting to a pay gap that was being corrected through discretionary funds.
We don’t know the motivation behind the significant allocation of discretionary funds to women in this job code, but Google promises to conduct a more thorough review looking into it. We also don’t know what kind of pay disparities, if any, Google found elsewhere in the company, though the company said that 49 per cent of this year’s adjustment dollars corrected “discrepancies in offers to new employees.”
What we do know is that conflating these adjustments for men with the conclusion that men across the company were underpaid is misguided, and without more transparency, it’s impossible to know for certain what inequalities exist in this workforce—or any other.