I’ve seen a disturbing trend. During the period from 2017-2021, three unrelated clients had a nearly identical situation. A clearly unqualified male executive is holding a high title and doing very little work, while a female manager reporting to that individual carries a huge workload at a much lower salary.
In each case, I was tempted to assume the person with senior title may have been performing some high-level function that was beyond the capability of the lower-paid worked. However, this was not the case.
In the most egregious example, let’s call the male exec “David” and the female manager “Ellen”.
The CEO described David and Ellen to me:
David is SVP of Product. We hired him for Sales, but customers complained that he is too pushy and doesn’t listen. Several key customers told us that they wanted to buy our product, but on the condition that they can work with someone different. So we took him off Sales. He’s not an engineer or a designer, but he understands the customer so he’s in charge of Product. Although he doesn’t speak with customers, because they don’t like him.
Ellen is the Product Manager. She manages the UX team, translates their designs into Jira, manages the commitments from the Dev team, and communicates timelines with key customers. She confirms whether proposed features will satisfy the customers’ specific requirements. Ellen then works with Marketing to create our literature and make sure the Sales Reps have materials which are aligned with the Dev roadmap.
David’s salary was double Ellen’s.
He did not work overtime, although Ellen was pulling 60-70 hour weeks.
Sometimes there are good reasons why a senior person might appear to be “doing less and getting paid more”. They may have special wisdom that came from experience. Or maybe they bring in lucrative sales or create spectacularly valuable output.
Junior positions sometimes require more “grunt work”, which can be tedious and time-consuming, yet still be relatively low-paying. Or a company might have a concept of “paying dues”, where everyone needs to “earn their stripes” doing some less-pleasant work before landing the cushy position.
I’ve had jobs where the boss says, “Listen I know this task is below your ability, but it needs to be done and there’s nobody else here with time for it. No insult intended, but please do this anyway.” Or a junior team member may need to “learn the ropes”, experience all of how the product is made, before they can hold a supervisory role. “Work the factory floor”, as it were. All of these concepts can be valid.
But what I saw was flat-out incompetent men being paid more than the women who were doing the actual work.
In the case of David and Ellen, I recommended strongly that the CEO should get rid of David and promote Ellen to his title and salary. Then use her old salary to hire her the junior help she deserved.
The entire company saw this dynamic playing out, and it was hurting morale. A business can’t be visibly unfair to some of its workers, without losing the loyalty of all the others.
I’m not saying this is unfairness is always the case.
I had a different client with a male senior exec who was extremely capable and hard-working. And a female manager below who was also working overtime.
But in that case the junior manager did not yet have the skills or mindset for executive responsibility.
Four times, in recent years, I saw this “man at double-salary of woman working overtime” dynamic. In three of them the woman was carrying the full workload of the higher-paid man. That number should be zero.
There are no absolutes, but the tendency is real.
If part of this story sounds like your company, think hard about whether sexism is the only reason she hasn’t been promoted yet.
At the company with David and Ellen, after my recommendation the CEO mumbled something about how David couldn’t be laid off because he “really needs the job”.
I suggested, “Look into your heart, and construct a severance package that is however generous you like. Give him a year’s pay if you must. But the rest of the Company needs to see him leave. And it won’t cost you anything more, because he’s not working anyway right now. His own projects need to be re-done by others, and his presence is hurting morale.”
My advice was disregarded.