They admit they are an unusual bunch tackling a daunting cause.
Earlier this year, math major Aaron Bursten, manufacturing student Blake Northam, and nursing major Camille Davis came together with a common goal—to end the gender pay gap.
Friends since their freshman days living in University Village, the trio came up with the idea of creating a certification process to recognize businesses that have a pay difference of 5 percent or less between equal employees. Those that qualify can brand themselves with the EqualPay USA logo—the student team’s nonprofit.
“People see the certification there and think, ‘I want to be part of that.’ They will see that they are losing money when other competitors are taking more clients and revenue because they have good morals,” Bursten said.
Now in their third year of college, Bursten was taking a gender studies class with professor Amy Lance when he first heard about the gender pay gap. Davis reached similar awareness in her women’s studies class, as students discussed whether the legislature was a good way to fight the disparity. And Northam was attuned to the topic each time it emerged during the US presidential election.
With the rising popularity in certifications as a way to recognize ethical standards and practices, such as organic and fair trade production, the trio agreed such a mechanism would be an understandable approach to equal pay.
“I thought, ‘why is there no way for me to know if I’m buying a product that has equal pay for men and women?’ I want to know if people are being treated fairly,” Bursten said.
They began strategizing in February and by March had established a website and social media presence. They also began polling people and conducting business outreach, and the group connected with the National Committee on Pay Equity. They also reached out to the North Valley Community Foundation and began operating under its 501(c)(3) designation, with the support of foundation president Alexa Benson-Valavanis (BA, Journalism, ’00).
When Bursten told students in his gender and communication class of the nonprofit they formed, Lance said her jaw nearly hit the floor and his peers were equally awed. She began sharing the website to the nonprofit on social media and in emails, and counseled Bursten and his group on their next steps.
Their ingenuity and entrepreneurship dedicated to making the world a better place is truly a representation of the Chico Experience, said Lance (BA, Speech Communication, ’97; MA, Human Communication, ’99).
“As a Chico State student, what I got most out of my education was that you can do anything that you want,” she said. “What they are doing is a perfect example of ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ ”
As a faculty member in management and communication studies courses, she’s been teaching her students about wage equality as part of the regular coursework for years, and it’s a thread that winds into conversations throughout the semester. Reactions range from students who don’t believe it exists, those who are shocked and horrified to be learning about the issue for the first time, and those who are living it, she said.
While it may take time, Lance is optimistic Bursten and his cofounders will make inroads toward equality.
“If you don’t have a disparity, then why wouldn’t you put the label on your business?” she said. “It’s 2016, and we have been fighting this since the second wave of the Women’s Movement. It’s time that we have equity in our pay.”
For the certification process, the team reviews the entirety of a participating business’ payroll, looking at employee positions, earnings, start dates, gender, bonuses, and years of service. With calculations based on a few additional adjustments, the salaries are analyzed and charted to provide a salary spread.
If compensation between equal employees falls within 5 percent, EqualPay USA offers branding as a business that provides equal pay for men and women. Certification must be renewed every year.
The students don’t have any official clients yet, but there has been a lot of interest.
“Once we get our first five [clients], we think the next 10 will come. And then 100,” Bursten said.
A survey they conducted found that 64 percent of people believe a wage gap exists, 61 percent would be more willing to purchase a product from a company that paid equal wages, and 2 percent would be more willing to work for a company that provides equal wages.
The trio has no misconceptions about how challenging it can be for an employer to equalize wages. They don’t expect a business to transform in a single year, and also want to give recognition to those that are working toward equality.
“We know they can’t just flip a switch,” Davis said. “And for larger companies that are not as agile, it could take at least five years.”
None of the students think they have experienced a wage disparity firsthand. But friends and relatives have shared stories. A female classmate working in the construction industry reported far lower wages than her male counterparts. Davis’ sister worked in the news industry, and she had male colleagues who earned more money for less work than she produced.
“It’s harder for us to relate because [the disparity] is often not as large at the entry level,” Bursten said, noting that recent graduates often face wage differences of about 18 percent but that easily climbs up to 30 percent within 10 years of graduation.
Chico State is not immune to the gap, they said, noting that in their study of salary data, they see a difference of 11 percent between male and female professors.
As major players such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and others have made public strides in equalizing pay, the students are optimistic they will find businesses to support their goal. Their early targets are those with whom they think they may have the best chance, such as businesses that started in Chico, are run by women, or are owned by Chico State alumni.
As an alum and an impassioned proponent of equality in multiple arenas, North Valley Community Foundation President Benson-Valavanis was excited by the prospect of supporting the students’ effort as social entrepreneurs.
“I’m really touched by their personal investment and interest in doing it, and in the mission itself,” she said. “I love it when students get a taste for how truly they can change the world by putting things out there and doing it. I think it’s the beginning of decades of service.”
In addition to supporting the students under the umbrella of the foundation’s tax-exempt status and longstanding credibility within the community, foundation staff are providing mentoring and best practices.
She hopes the students’ effort will be beneficial for the community, as companies learn that treating everyone equitably is of value to both businesses and to their employees.
“And I think it would be so cool to start something like this in Chico, to see how it takes hold in a community that is so socially conscious, and then model it in other communities,” Benson-Valavanis said.
Businesses interested in learning more can visit www.equalpayusa.org.