How startups can help solve the gender wage gap

It’s unlikely that the gender wage gap will close before 2057. And that’s a conservative estimate.

On the heels Women’s History Month and Equal Pay Day today, I can’t help but think about how countries, specifically, the U.S., need to do a better job tackling wage equality. Only six countries give women the same legal rights as men, and the U.S. is far from being one of them. In 2018, the U.S. didn’t place in the top 10, or even top 50, in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of 149 countries based on gender equality.

Large companies like Coca-Cola, GE, and HP get a lot of attention for their female-focused workplace efforts, but startups are often overlooked. There might be less name recognition, but startups are poised to make change happen. These companies are in the business of predicting the future and paving the way for the next Fortune 500. When a once scrappy company matures to become a Google behemoth, it has an unbelievable ability to force older institutions to check their bias and think more progressively about compensation. If early-stage tech companies have the right thinking in place around diversity, inclusion, and gender equality, as their teams grow, the impact can be significant.

Historically, a massive part of the problem was no one wanted to acknowledge there was a problem. Now, we’re openly talking about what feeds into why women and men are being paid differently. We’ve seen legislation change and companies start paying more attention to matters like parental leave, but the work is far from done. Hiring teams need to focus on how employees think about, engage with, and value work in order to stay competitive. As more Millennials and Gen Zers flood the workforce, hiring practices must evolve based on their values. That translates into an increase in transparency and pay parity.

To get started, here are some core recommendations, both for early-stage companies wanting to make good on their potential and for candidates to keep in mind:

Evaluate your hiring processes. Who’s on your hiring team? What pronouns and adjectives are used in your recruiting materials? Are you looking at the name of your applicant and making assumptions? Both women and men are guilty of unconscious bias, and the solution requires everyone’s buy-in. Whether it’s investing in training or tools to spread internal awareness, addressing it on a unified front is core to create more inclusive, diverse workspaces.

Generate a thoughtful compensation approach. Many companies don’t plan ahead and as a result, allow the loudest voice in the room to dictate salaries. If you’re a VC-backed startup, leverage the team’s experience to help you put together a compensation review framework that covers everything from compensation changes, promotions and title changes, to option pool distribution and more.

Recognize it’s a 50/50 responsibility. While early-stage companies are well primed to tackle wage inequities, many startups move so quickly that initially they don’t have hiring guard rails. In this case, candidates should also educate themselves. Collect compensation data by asking people in similar roles. Use online sources like Glassdoor. Seek info from more experienced folks in your network. Once armed with intel, don’t shy away from speaking up.

For advice on how to approach these challenging conversations, we turned to Sarah Sheehan, Founder & COO of Bravely, a portfolio company that connects employees with professional coaches for confidential conversations in the moments when it’s most needed.

“The key is to be prepared. Research and understand the market value for the role, come to the table with data points demonstrating your past success, and know your floor so you aren’t tempted to accept less than you deserve. Lastly (and most importantly), role-play the conversation with someone you trust to get out the jitters and avoid any curve balls that can throw you off your game.”

Be conscientious about equity. Equity is designed to incentivize employees to be an owner in the business. It’s an option to invest, not a gift. It can also perpetuate the pay gap if used to balance out much lower cash compensation. Equity is worth zero dollars until there’s a meaningful event, and if your employees can’t afford to buy their shares because of how you structured your comp packages, you need to revisit your approach. While not a gender-specific issue, make sure you examine your offers thoughtfully so that remains true.

I speak on behalf of Primary Venture Partners when I say we want to add to the transparency around compensation and are committing to monitoring and sharing insights into how salaries on the basis of gender change from Seed to Series A and beyond. As portfolio companies in our second fund mature, stay tuned for more insights and trends on this issue.

Cat Hernandez, Primary Operating Partner



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Primary Venture Partners

Primary Venture Partners


A seed-stage venture capital firm responsible for backing NYC’s most promising founders.