Some of Amazon's shareholders want the online retail giant to hold a simple non-binding vote on a 58-word resolution: It requests that the company announce its "policies and goals" to address the pay gap between men and women. But Amazon wants no such vote to take place. It sent a letter to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) in January, arguing that the resolution was too "vague" to even be considered by its shareholders.
On Thursday the SEC rejected Amazon's argument. It called the gender pay gap a "significant social policy issue," and cleared the way for the motion to be heard at Amazon's next shareholder meeting in May.
"Companies need to wake up and start being pro-active about gender pay equity," Natasha Lamb, the director of equity research and shareholder engagement at Arjuna Capital, the Amazon shareholder that spearheaded the resolution, said in a phone interview. "It is a social justice issue, and it's a business issue — it's that sweet spot where investors can speak up and say 'this is no longer OK.'"
Lamb and Arjuna Capital have applied the same shareholder resolution approach to pressure seven major tech companies — including Facebook, Intel, Expedia, Apple, and Adobe — to address workplace diversity and gender pay equity. The tactic has already borne some fruit. In January, Intel announced it would set aside $300 million to promote diversity, and reported that it had reached 100 percent gender parity, excluding bonuses, and equity. Apple CEO Tim Cook announced in February that the company had achieved 99.6 percent parity. As a result, Arjuna agreed to withdraw similar shareholder resolutions at those companies.
When such resolutions do go to a vote, it's not always to the benefit of pay equity advocates. Last year, Ebay shareholders overwhelming rejected a similar resolution that asked the company to make gender-pay information public. Arjuna has since refiled its proposal ahead of this year's shareholder meeting.
Amazon's decision to fight the resolution did not surprise Lamb. "Asking a company about the gender pay gap is like asking someone the last time you beat your wife," she said. "There's going to be guilt."
Little is known about Amazons' gender pay structure. The company does report that 39 percent of its global workforce is female — but only 24 percent of manager-level employees are woman.
Even though companies are squeamish about publicizing the gender-breakdown of their salary structures, there's an undeniable pay gap between men and women. According to the latest numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women who work in mathematical and computer industries make 84 cents for every dollar a man makes. That's slightly better than the average pay gap of 78 cents on the dollar for all employment.
That gap in salaries can add up: the recruiting firm Dice reported that men earned nearly $10,000 more a year than women in the technology field.
Parsing the pay gap in a specific company can be challenging, however, if the the company doesn't disclose its compensation practices. For instance, the employer review company Glassdoors reports that women engineers at Facebook earn $5,949 dollars less than their male counterparts — but that data is based on self-reported salaries, and can't be independently verified.
Though few companies are eager to disclose their gender pay gaps, Lamb said that Amazon's response to the proposed shareholder resolution was particularly disappointing. "We want them to be leaders, and instead they are pushing back and being defensive,"' she said.
During a meeting with Amazon in Janurary, Lamb remembers executives expressing concern that a pay-equity intiative could produce public relations problems for the company, and "pile on" to the "reputational issues" it already faced. Amazon has been already been under scrutiny for its reportedly nurturing a harsh corporate culture, and relying on low-wage warehouse jobs to fuel its delivery business.
Amazon, for its part, disputed this characterization of the meeting, and said it never mentioned its reputation when discussing pay equity issues with Lamb. Amazon also pointed VICE News to a recent survey that found Amazon to be the most popular and reputable company in the USA.
When asked by VICE News to explain how the company approaches pay equity, Amazon responded that they're "committed to fairly and equitably compensating all our employees," and that they "review all employee compensation on at least an annual basis to ensure that it meets that bar."
That standard doesn't pass muster in Lamb's view. "The assumption across the board is that all companies have a gender pay equity problem unless they are doing something really pro-active," she said. "Saying: Trust us, women are being treated fairly, just isn't good enough."
Thanks to the SEC's ruling, Lamb's shareholder resolution will be put up for a vote in May. It's non-binding, but Lamb says that if she gets just 20 percent of the vote, that will signal a "huge show of support," for taking the gender-pay gap more seriously.