When investor Natasha Lamb considered all of the issues facing women working in technology—their paltry numbers, bias against them, the testosterone-fueled workplace—one stood out as a problem she could actually fix: the gender pay gap.
"Wage information in general is such a black box," Lamb said.
Lamb is the director of shareholder engagement at the Boston activist investment firm Arjuna Capital, an arm of the wealth management firm Baldwin Brothers. Activist investors buy large stakes in public companies in hopes of influencing change in the company for the public good. For Lamb, that meant breaking down Silicon Valley's barriers to women. She has submitted proposals to nine tech companies in which her firm has a stake asking them to publicly disclose whether they pay women less than their male colleagues, and if so, by how much. Of those, so far three have revealed that they do underpay female workers, at least slightly.
"As investors we’re interested in understanding what structural barriers are keeping these companies from thriving and being diverse," Lamb told me, via phone. "Equal pay is a metric that companies can disclose, should disclose, and should be accountable to investors for."
Most studies suggest that pay is fairer in tech than other industries, but the gender pay gap is still definitely there. A PayScale analysis found that it's highest at the executive level with women on average being paid 22 percent less than men—suggesting that as women climb the ranks, the gap widens.
"On average, tech companies pay women $10,000 less than men," Lamb said. "It becomes a vicious cycle: as women, already making less, go from one job to the next, it almost gives their new employer permission to continue paying them less."
Lamb took on eBay first, with Arjuna Capital submitting a proposal to its board back in February 2015, asking the company to both disclose any gender pay gap and prepare a report on its plan to eradicate it. Unfortunately, the proposal was defeated. Only 8 percent of the company's shareholders voted in favor after eBay recommended against it, arguing that it would “not enhance the company’s existing commitment to an inclusive culture or meaningfully further its goal and efforts in support of workplace diversity."
Lamb, though, was not deterred. The movement for equal pay had begun to go viral, with shout-outs at the 2015 Oscars and during the State of the Union. "It's 2015. It's time," declared President Obama. So this year, Lamb submitted proposals to nine of Silicon Valley's biggest companies.
Companies have responded with drastically varying degrees of enthusiasm. Adobe fought the proposal and got it thrown out on a technicality. Arjuna withdrew its proposals from Intel and Apple, after both companies reported they had virtually no pay gap and publicly committed to take steps to keep it that way. Expedia and Microsoft also said they would comply with the information request without putting it to a shareholder vote, so Arjuna withdrew its proposals there, too.
Amazon sought at first to block the proposal, arguing that it was "inherently vague or indefinite." The Securities and Exchange Commission, however, ruled that the company would have to include it on its annual ballot. At that point, Amazon, caved, too.
“Our recent review of the compensation we awarded last year at Amazon – including both base and stock – resulted in women earning 99.9 cents for every dollar that men earn in the same jobs," an Amazon spokesperson told me. "There will naturally be slight fluctuations from year to year, but at Amazon we are committed to keeping compensation fair and equitable.”
Lamb's proposals are still up for a shareholder vote at Facebook and Google. The vote took place at eBay this week.