Can an App Really Close the Pay Gap Between Men and Women?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 10 2012 4:28 PM

Can an App Really Close the Pay Gap Between Men and Women?

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Senior adviser and assistant to the president Valerie Jarrett makes opening remarks at a Women in Finance Symposium focusing on institutional investment.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the White House announced a project called the Equal Pay Phone App Challenge. The competition’s goal: create an app that uses labor data and negotiation resources to raise awareness about the wage gap and aid women in pay negotiations.  According to senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, the challenge is an invitation to “software developers to help women ensure that they’re being paid fairly—which in turn will help restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.”

When I first found out about the “App Challenge,” I reacted much like a Politco reader who bluntly asked in the comments section: “is this a joke? A satire piece?” The administration’s suggestion that an application could help address pay inequity seemed ridiculous and, to some extent, it seemed to trivialize the issue.

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However, after reviewing the goals of the competition, one of which is to provide greater access to pay data, I realized even if this app does not have a huge impact, it’s not an altogether terrible idea.

In late August, I was coming up on a year at my current job. I knew that employees generally receive a raise at the end of a year and that I was getting promoted. However, I had no idea what other people at my level were making, and when the director of HR invited me into her office to talk about the promotion, I was a blushing, head-nodding, mess. The only question I managed to ask was if the salary I was offered was in the normal range for program associates. I was assured that it was, but I did not have the data to verify this, nor did I press for more.

I am far from the only woman who has found herself ready to negotiate but unsure of how much to ask for. And, while I have since discovered that there is some salary information available on sites like Glassdoor.com and Guidestar.org, an app that made this data easy to access and made it better known that such data exists could arm women with the information they need to successfully negotiate raises.

Hannah Riley Bowles, an associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has done several studies on compensation negotiations. She found that in "industries in which salary standards were ambiguous, women accepted salaries that were ten percent lower on average than did the men.” When women do not know what to ask for, they set less ambitious negotiation goals and, as a result, make less money.

Will this application close the wage gap? Absolutely not. But it could be useful next time I find myself in the hot seat. And, at the very least, it shows that though the Paycheck Fairness Act failed to pass in Congress in 2010, the administration has not forgotten about the issue; it is a creative way to reach out to private industry developers; and it raises awareness about the ongoing efforts to achieve equal pay for equal work.

Caroline Esser is a program associate at the New America Foundation.