Hacking the Gender Pay Gap

Technological innovation has addressed some of the largest problems in the world over the years. We have focused our collective computing intelligence on a great many issues, ranging from education to environmental protection. However, I do not normally associate an intentional combination of 1s and 0s with solutions to issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. However, this past weekend, I had the unique opportunity to think about how to combine my vocation and my passion to address a nagging social problem that politicians, educators, and researchers have yet to fully solve. My goal was to hack the pay gap.

More precisely, I was part of a team of diverse individuals that came together as part of The Breaking the Mold Hackathon. The event, which was organized by the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Sloan Women in Management, was designed to “hack” unconscious bias in many different forms and generate real world solutions beyond simply discussing issues and concerns. Although the event was modeled on more traditional hackathons, which are typically more tech-centered, and tasked with developing technology-based solutions, this event took a slightly different and more structured path towards solutions.

I prepared for the event by broadening my general knowledge and prior experience exploring the gender pay gap from a feminist multicultural perspective, and looking to business and industry for common narratives and responses to the problem. Several significant solutions, including pay transparency, the elimination of negotiation during the offer process, and providing women with negotiation training, have all been proposed and attempted in recent years by large and small companies and organizations. They all offer a partial solution, but do not necessarily get to the heart of the problem, namely the unconscious bias that causes employers to pay women less for the same work in the first place.

Our group chose to re-conceptualize the gender pay gap as a compensation equity gap. This notion better takes into account not only significant differences in base salary, but also benefits, promotions, retirement packages, bonuses, and other aspects of compensation that traditionally disadvantage women. We developed a software platform that would allow organizational leaders to assess their workforce and directly target the actions and environment within their organizations to effect real change. This change would become a priority within the organization by linking it to the very compensation of organizational leaders themselves.

The idea generation, development, and implementation process was fast-paced, buoyed by diverse perspectives from participants in various fields and industries, and resulted in some highly innovative thinking. Within higher education especially, we spend a great deal of time discussing problems, convening meetings and forming committees, and doing research. All of these pieces are crucial to the process of social change, but they are only as important as the priority that is placed on action.

The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1964. We have been discussing these discrepancies for over 50 years, and have moved the needle very little. This event was an important reminder that talking will only get you so far. Not only are we capable of acting, building, creating, and changing, but we must do so. We must continue to push ourselves to think about how we can hack the problems that plague us and strive to create real, tangible change in the process. Thus, my challenge to each of you is to think about how you can move from discussing to hacking!

Social Justice: Moving from Awareness to Action

The question of how we define and understand social justice and justice more broadly is one that has engaged the minds of scholars for centuries. Although social justice is generally viewed as revolving around the notion of equality, it can be viewed much more broadly. The works of Rawls (1999) and Miller (1999) are perhaps recent foundational conceptions of social justice, but they follow a lineage that dates back to Aristotle and Plato.

If we attempt to incorporate various recent philosophical views (Elster, 1992; Feinberg, 1973; Frankena, 1962; Miller, 1999; Rawls, 1999) into a unifying definition of social justice, we are left with a set of real or ideal circumstances which satisfy three main criteria (Jost and Kay, 2010). This justice-oriented state exists when

(a) benefits and burdens in society are dispersed in accordance with some allocation principle (or set of principles); (b) procedures, norms, and rules that govern political and other forms of decision making preserve the basic rights liberties, and entitlements of individuals and groups; and (c) human beings (and perhaps other species) are treated with dignity and respect not only by authorities but also by other relevant social actors, including fellow citizens” (Jost and Kay, 2010, p.1122).

Although considerable debates over these elements persists (see Campbell, 2001; Miller, 1999), more fundamental questions lie at the heart of the discussion. Which rights and liberties are reasonable in society? What does treating others with respect and dignity actually look like? These fundamental questions form the foundation for current social justice movements as collaborative and opposing groups and individuals attempt to define these parameters.

Throughout history, social justice movements have identified differences in the rights and liberties afforded to individuals, and the manner in which members of society extend respect and dignity to each other. This process of identification has existed as a form of awareness and often led to action on the part of those individuals who identified discrepancies. Activists have repeatedly made it clear that benefits and burdens have not been allocated evenly in our society, and the basic norms and rules that govern our society have, in part, served to preserve those discrepancies. This has led to many members of our society not being treated with basic respect and dignity.

This awareness of social inequity and injustice is the result of a long lineage of scholars and activists making their claims, logically defending them, and challenging others to see their point-of-view. What was once series of independent and sometimes isolated movements has evolved into an intersecting web of social awareness and education. We literally have the knowledge at our fingertips and filling our inboxes and news feeds on a daily basis. There is truly no excuse for not being AWARE of inequity and injustice in this world.

Thus, I believe it’s time that we move past awareness as a goal in social justice work. Awareness should be the status quo. It should be the baseline expectation for those of us who claim to be committed to social justice. For Rawls (1999), social justice is a freely entered into contract to abide by certain regulations for the betterment of society, regardless of individual benefit. He has no expectation that everyone will agree on what action is required for social justice in various situations, but that people will ultimately agree that some action is required, regardless of differing moral, religious, or philosophical beliefs. Furthermore, Miller (1999) argues that “justice fundamentally requires us to treat people as equals; or we should understand justice as what people would agree to in advance of knowing their own stake in the decision to be reached” (p. 87).

The defining element in social justice must then become action. We are past the point where not being aware of the injustices negatively impacting millions of Americans on a regular basis should be an allowable state of being. The information is out there, the voices are loud, and it is everyone’s responsibility to listen. As educators, we must begin to expect awareness as a baseline and insist on engaging in more intentional dialogue about action for social justice. Everyone has the responsibility to decide for themselves what rights and responsibilities are reasonable, and what treating others with respect and dignity looks like, but we also have the responsibility to listen to others. Sometimes that means acting on their behalf, even if we don’t have a stake in the issue. As a democratic society, we all ultimately have a stake in every issue in some way.

So, my invitation to you is to accept awareness as a basic expectation, and continue to educate yourself and others. There will always be folks that need a bit more guidance, and it will always be important to make that information readily available in the spaces where they will be accessed. However, don’t stop there. Have conversations, listen to people, get involved in your community, and work to educate others. Decide to ACT for social justice.


Campbell, T. (2001). Justice (2nd Ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Elster, J. (1992). Local justice: How institutions allocate scarce goods and necessary burdens. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Feinberg, J. (1973). Social philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Frankena, W. K. (1962). The concept of social justice. In R. B. Brandt (Ed.), Social justice (pp. 1-29). Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jost, J.T., & Kay, A.C. (2010). Social Justice: History, Theory, and Research. In S. T. Fiske (Ed.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 1122-1165). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Miller, D. (1999). Principles of social justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Embracing the Suck

I run. A lot. I spend ridiculous amounts of time on my feet, running through the woods and escaping a social and political world that increasingly perplexes me and leaves me shaking my head. My partner often shakes her head and rolls her eyes because she knows that I could be gone for 1 hour or 24 hours. In many ways, it’s my opportunity to attempt to process the deluge of conversations, media coverage, and social media crazy that leaves me wondering where our country is heading. In many ways, my ability to literally escape from the rest of the world and run off into the woods for hours on end is an apt analogy for the privilege I have as a cis-gendered White male to pick and choose when I want to be “on” and when I just want to let it go. I can decide when I want to be an ally and advocate, and when I just don’t have the energy to challenge yet another ignorant comment or casually racist comment.

As my own thinking on oppression and what it means to be an anti-racist ally has evolved, however, I’ve begun to understand more about what it means to be truly committed. In talking with friends and colleagues over the years, it has become more and more evident to me that not everyone has the same privilege to decide when to act and when to remain silent. That is a luxury I have despite the fact that there are reports of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression on a daily basis. Peoples’ lives are intricately woven into the fabric of oppression in such a way as to be inseparable from one another. They can’t simply walk on by, can’t choose whether or not they are going to be affected by what they see, hear, or experience. For many folks from underrepresented groups, their guard is always up. Simply existing in the U.S. means always being on guard, trying to tread water between events, and hoping that the next one won’t hit even closer to home. This conscious tension and anxiety has been studied, and absolutely has a direct and negative impact on other aspects of folks’ lives. I know I’ll never feel that in the same way.

Being an anti-racist social justice ally means seeking it out, though. It means attempting to divert the flow in your direct, even just for a moment, to give someone else the chance to take a deep, cleansing breathe and summon the strength to keep going. In the running world, especially at longer distances, many people talk about “embracing the suck”. By this, I mean acknowledging that at some point, the distance is going to get hard. Really hard. Your body is going to hurt- your muscles will ache, your lungs will burn, your energy will be tapped out, but you’ll still have to move on. All you can do in this instance is embrace the discomfort as an expected way of being, and keep moving forward. The finish line isn’t getting any closer if you aren’t moving. That’s why I truly believe that many of the longer distances are much more a mental than a physical exercise past a certain point. All of this is to say that in being an ally, we need to learn how to embrace the suck.

We need to embed in ourselves the understanding that this work is hard. We need to remember that there will always be one more act of violence, one more casually racist remark, one more ignorant person, one more person struggling to get by and carry the historically and systematically entrenched weight of oppression on their shoulders. We need to consciously decide not to set that weight down when it’s too hard. We need to be ready to walk into the woods, embrace the suck, and keep moving.

This work is hard. It’s hard in a way that I can’t grasp entirely at any given point. That’s where listening comes into play, and not simply acting instinctually. So many of the struggles around oppression are deeply embedded into the fabric of our country, and that can make it hard to see progress, especially when voices are consistently silenced in our collective dialogue. It can make it hard to feel like you are making a difference. It can mean shrugging your shoulders in confusion as a White ally. That feeling of helplessness has left many folks wondering what to do in the wake of so many tragedies. I feel that same sense of helplessness at times myself. There are always going to be shifting pieces and changing rules in this game, but the weight of history that oppressed peoples’ carry around with them remains consistent. So, if I can embrace the suck and carry some of that burden myself to support those that aren’t given a choice about carrying it, then I’m allowing them to stand up straight, take that much needed deep breath, and carry on.

Please reach out with comments, questions, or to grab a cup of coffee and chat!

In Solidarity,


For more information and thoughts, check out some of these great articles.

11 Things White People can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies

Advice For White Folks In The Wake Of The Police Killing Of A Black Person

18 Books Every White Ally Should Read

It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people