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As the #metoo and #timesup movements continue to gain momentum, companies are becoming more attune to the seismic groundswell of voices protesting gender inequality—especially when it comes to pay and opportunities in the workplace.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the median annual income for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $40,742 and the median annual income for a man with the same type of job is $51,212. The gap is shrinking, in part thanks to new laws and salary adjustments. But while these efforts are important, they don't deal the with systemic problems at the heart of the gender pay gap.

Just ask Marc Benioff. The Salesforce chairman and CEO spent over $3 million in 2015 in an effort to create parity at his company. But after just two years, Benioff pledged another $3 million because the gap reemerged. Benioff's effort—while herculean—underpins the breadth and depth of the issue.

Often, when we talk about the gender pay gap, we tend to focus on why this is a company's issue or a man's issue, but as females we need to feel empowered to take the issue into our own hands. I believe that empowerment comes in the form of education and self-awareness. Learning and development are tantamount to career growth and employee retention, but I also think they are important parts of the solution in lessening the gender pay gap and getting us closer to sustainable equality.

Start By Understanding Behaviors Around Performance Reviews and Pay Expectations

As someone who's built her career in the talent management field, I've watched the gender pay gap play out before my eyes for years. One way both women and managers can feel empowered to enact change is by understanding how our behaviors (often unconscious) continue to perpetuate the pay and opportunity gap.

Tackling the gap can feel daunting, but there are some obvious areas where we can focus to help disrupt the systemic root of the issue. One area is performance reviews—specifically the self-review portion. Over the years, I've seen women across all levels rank their work lower than men. I've also seen them rate their work as needing improvement more often than men and wait to be asked about job opportunities rather than ask for them.

Managers who read these self-reviews often act in-kind, thinking, “If she thinks she needs improvement, maybe I'll hold off on that promotion I was planning to give her. After all, she knows herself and her work best." It's important to understand that these thought processes occur by both male and female leaders—an unconscious bias.

I've also seen women fail to ask for appropriate salaries when interviewing. And while new laws prevent employers from asking about salary history to prevent employers from using current salary as the basis to make an offer that further perpetuates the pay gap issue, it does not prevent employers from asking what our salary expectations are. Armed with expectations that are typically based on our current pay—which is typically already lower than men's—women are far more likely to ask for a lower salary.

Embrace and Encourage Self-Advocacy

Here's where education comes in. Women need to be encouraged to advocate for themselves and managers need to be educated about the self-rating and career advancement tendencies of both genders (and how they can help change that). Additionally, women need to educate themselves about salary expectations using substantiated data. Otherwise, we'll continue to see a perpetuating cycle that harms female advancement.

Of course there are a lot of other things contributing to the pay gap—including, but not limited to, the fact that women's earnings drop significantly after they have children and the lack of females in leadership positions across industries. Oftentimes the outlook feels grim. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports it will take over 200 years to close the gap. Despite this, though, there is real power in knowledge and self-advocacy. I see it when female employees are armed with the facts and are urged to believe their work is exceptional when it is (and to talk about it).

Over time, the lack of self-advocacy (and lack of education around the lack of self-advocacy) contributes to serious gaps in pay. Once learned, this is a difficult pattern to break. We embrace social norms out of comfort and practice. As women, we must educate ourselves in order to break free from the cycle we have tendencies to contribute to. Practicing change leads to modified behaviors, beliefs and attitude. Change can begin with us. And as leaders, both men and women, change begins when we get conscious about these tendencies by proactively educating ourselves and our colleagues.

Photo: Unsplash