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Median Gender Pay Proposals So Far Lose Proxy Votes but Gain Momentum

Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital LLC

Natasha Lamb, director of equity research and managing partner for Arjuna Capital LLC. Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

Shareholders at Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo this week voted down proxy proposals asking them to reveal more data on their gender pay gaps. Though activists lost those votes, they say they are gaining ground in the battle for gender pay equity.

Arjuna Capital, an investment firm specializing in sustainable and ethical investing, guided the proposals onto the proxy ballots at the annual meetings of Bank of America on April 24 and Wells Fargo on April 23. The proposals won 26 percent of the vote at Bank of America, and 23 percent at Wells Fargo—up from 15 percent in 2017, when pay equity first appeared on the ballots.

Natasha Lamb, managing partner of Arjuna Capital and spearhead of the gender equity project, hailed the votes as a sign of shareholder progress. “There is so much more momentum on this issue than when we first began the campaign in 2015,” she told Corporate Counsel on Thursday. “We see the votes growing year over year, and they banks are publishing equal pay for equal work numbers now.”

Lamb added, “When one in four shareholders say they also want to see the median numbers, companies take notice.”

Asked about pay equity, a Bank of America spokesperson referred simply to its proxy statement. The document includes a full page about equal pay for equal work and workplace diversity. Other banks also have declined to discuss pay equity issues.

The Bank of America proxy statement says “that compensation received by women is on average greater than 99 percent of that received by men. Results also showed that in the U.S. compensation received by people of color is on average greater than 99 percent of nonpeople of color teammates.”

It also says women make up over 45 percent of the bank’s management team, 40 percent of its global managers and 45 percent of senior-level employees.

Lamb agreed that all of that is good news and shows progress. “It’s important to close the equal pay for equal work pay gap,” she agreed. "But it’s only half the story.”

The proxy resolutions on the ballot asked the companies to disclose their median gender pay gap—a number that shows who holds the highest-paying positions, males or females. So far Citigroup Inc. is the only major bank that has agreed to disclose that number.

In January Citigroup reported that its gender pay gap was 99 percent, just like Bank of America and Wells Fargo. But its median gender pay was a whopping 71 percent in favor of men. That means that despite increases in the number of women in leadership positions, most of the highest-paying jobs are still held by men.

Lamb suspects that Bank of America’s median numbers, along with the other companies, would tell a similar tale of “how the money falls in an organization.”

Bank of America, for one, touted its leadership training programs for women and minorities in its proxy statement. Lamb countered, “The question for investors is: Are those programs working? Measuring the median pay gap is a good yardstick for that over time.”

On Feb. 12, Arjuna Capital announced its proxy campaign on median gender and racial pay gaps, targeting 12 U.S. banks and technology and retail companies. They were Adobe, Amazon.com Inc., Citigroup, Intel Corp., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Bank of America, Wells Fargo, American Express Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and MasterCard Inc.

For the most part, companies have opposed the proposal, arguing that median pay numbers do not tell the whole story on equity. Lamb pointed out that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines the gender pay gap as median pay. “It is the metric,” she said. “It shows not just whether there is equal pay but if there is equal opportunity.”

Proposals at New York Mellon and Adobe went to a vote April 9 and 11, garnering 25 percent and 33 percent of the vote, respectively. Other scheduled votes are American Express, Intel, JPMorgan, Amazon and Facebook in May; and Alphabet/Google and MasterCard in June.

Lamb said she wants other companies to do what Citigroup did by being transparent with their median pay numbers.

“The ‘trust us’ approach has led to very little change over time,” she said. “If there’s no transparency, then we won’t see much progress.”