| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

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HP Zara Nanu
Zara Nanu MPA ‘06, co-founder and CEO of GapSquare. (Credit: Tom Weller )

According to estimates from the World Economic Forum, it will take 216 years to close the pay gap between men and women. Zara Nanu MPA ’06 is not going to wait.

As she points out, the same forum predicts that by 2030 many of us will be sitting in our self-driving cars thinking about travel to Mars since scientists will by then have figured out how to stay healthy in space. And yet, as we pack for our trip to the Red Planet, we will still be 200 years from reaching equality in pay. Nanu is one of the founders of GapSquare, a company that uses advances in software development and data sciences to help organizations and companies narrow the gap faster.

After graduating from the Institute, Nanu returned to her native Moldova to work for the international development organization Catholic Relief Services on a project to help prevent the trafficking of women to other countries, mainly for sexual exploitation. “We were doing that by raising awareness about trafficking and providing women with livelihood opportunities and skills.”

The idea was that by improving the employment situation and offering women a chance to earn a proper living, they would be less likely to fall prey to human traffickers. “It was really exciting the first few months but then the more I went out into the field to visit the women, the more it looked like they ended up being employed in sweatshop-like jobs without any possibility of career progression, with limited access to employment rights—sometimes toilets were a five-minute walk away from where they were working. So it didn’t seem as exciting anymore. That is when I started thinking that helping women with skills and employment is one thing, but actually ensuring that those places offer equal opportunities for them is another thing.”

We know that companies can become a lot more profitable if they close the gap and become more diverse.
— Zara Nanu MPA '06

Nanu brings to her work at GapSquare a wealth of experience working for charities in the United Kingdom, where she now lives, mostly on issues related to women’s rights. “I kept on coming back to the same thing—in the nonprofit world we are doing so much on human rights, but once you get into the private sector, things are not moving as fast in that direction.” She decided to bring the values of her nonprofit experience to the business world. “Technology is bringing about rapid changes to our world and I thought, how can we use it to create more equal work places for men and women?” Nanu and her business partner started building software that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to look at companies’ payroll data and HR information to understand key insights that explain why they have gaps in gender or in ethnicity, and how they can address those gaps by using data. In less than three years they have grown to a team of 10 with over a hundred companies as clients.

“One of the key things that we are seeing is that the problem is connected to flexible working. A lot of the higher paying jobs do not offer opportunity for flexible hours. We also see occupational segregation where the pay is higher in fields that are dominated by men than those that are dominated by women. For instance in the tech sector, pay per hour is much higher than in nursing. Biased recruitment is another issue. There is more recruitment of women into lower paying jobs and men into the higher paid roles.” Nanu adds that around 45 percent of pay difference can be explained by experience, education, or other factors, but 55 percent of the gap cannot be explained away.

Underlying are issues related to entrenched cultural norms and societal pressures that can often be politicized. Nanu says that only by bringing in numbers and data is it possible to turn this into a management issue. “We know that companies can become a lot more profitable if they close the gap and become more diverse. Studies in Europe have shown that more diverse companies have seven percent higher annual share price growth. Other studies show clear financial benefits to having a diverse workforce. Tangible benefits help move the discussion away from being a separate women or diversity issue, sort of a “tick-box” issue, to one that is vital to continued growth.

“There is still a need for a societal shift,” Nanu says, “but once you start talking about numbers and next steps this big task becomes more doable.”

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Eva Gudbergsdottir