Sometimes, the fight for pay equity takes place through public demonstration, as it did at workplaces across the country with A Day Without a Woman this month.

Sometimes, it happens in a classroom.

In Georgetown University’s master’s degree program in human resources management, students are learning the skills they need to ensure that companies’ policies on hiring, advancement and pay are fair. According to Edith Montenegro, a human resources professional in D.C. who attends the Georgetown program part time, this is an essential role for HR employees nowadays.

“I don’t think it’s an optional role to play,” says Montenegro, 38. “Every HR professional knows it’s our responsibility.”
In 2015, women working full time in the United States typically were paid 80 percent of what men were paid; black women made 63 percent of what white men made; and Hispanic and Latina women made 54 percent, according to a 2017 report from the American Association of University Women.

As the front line of a company’s hiring practices, HR employees have an opportunity to help change that. Georgetown’s program allows students to focus on several areas related to HR, including strategic human capital management (Montenegro’s focus), and diversity and inclusion. Among the skills students learn is how to use data to show companies where they fall short on pay equity and diversity (including diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation), and why paying attention to these issues is good for business.

“A lot of people feel it’s the right thing to do, and it is, but there is also a positive business impact when the work is done effectively,” says Jacqueline Blount, 36, an HR professional in D.C. She graduated from Georgetown’s HR management program in 2015 with a concentration in diversity and inclusion.

William Martucci, an employment attorney at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP and an instructor in Georgetown’s HR management program, says grad programs are becoming more and more focused on using data and analytics to provide better evidence for HR policies.

“If one as a company has espoused global diversity and inclusion, or equal pay practices, now there’s an opportunity to drill down deeper, establish a benchmark and to periodically review that information,” he says. “These pay disparities have existed for such a long time for a variety of reasons. The use of analytics is very exciting because it will add a dimension to best practices.”

The University of Maryland University College’s master’s degree in management with a human resources specialization also teaches HR students to mine company data to identify pay gaps and develop solutions.

“Our program weaves the topics of diversity, inclusion and equity through all of the courses,” says Donna Drake-Clark, a UMUC professor and chair of the HR management program.

George Mason Learning Solutions’ HR management certificate program includes diversity and inclusion as part of its core curriculum, too.

Some employers are already using strategies to reach equity in the workplace, including not asking job candidates for past salary history or to name their ideal salary, and ensuring equal access to training opportunities, Martucci and Drake-Clark note. These are the skills and strategies that HR professionals need now. HR jobs themselves have changed to reflect this, with many organizations creating HR roles specifically dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Blount, for example, works specifically on ensuring diversity at her organization.

“Employers have an interest in ensuring that women can succeed in their companies,” says Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center in D.C. “Women are about half the workforce. If you have a company culture that drives women out, you’re going to lose a lot of talent.”

Montenegro says she looks forward to applying the skills she’s learning in the classroom in the real world.

“Theory is good, but practice is better,” she says. “Hopefully, at the end of everything, we can help shape organizations toward creating a more tolerant and inclusive workforce.”

Legal maneuvers: The federal government might give HR employees a boost in terms of leveling the playing field at their organizations. A proposed law, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would strengthen existing equal pay laws and calls for training programs in negotiation skills for women and girls. The bill has been introduced several times and never passed, but states such as California and Massachusetts have passed their own laws designed to close the wage gap