In celebration of Women’s History Month, a very esteemed colleague of mine recently asked our team at the Institute if the theories we apply to issues in health care, education, and global prosperity could also be used to tackle some of the struggles women face every day, such as the gender pay gap or even more broadly, women’s rights. 

My first reaction was: absolutely. But that may be because two years working at the Institute has reprogrammed my brain to approach everything with a theoretical lens. My second, more normal reaction, was: how in the world am I going to apply theory to solve these seemingly unsolvable problems. Honestly, without further reading, it seemed too big of a task.

But then I read, The Time To Close The Gender Pay Gap Is Now: How You Can Join The Fight, a Forbes article that another brilliant colleague had shared in response. The article provides harrowing statistics, like the fact that it’ll take more than 100 years to close the gender pay gap, but it also provides some solutions that individuals, employers, and policymakers can employ to help close the gap. It wasn’t the statistics or solutions that caught my eye though—it was the breakdown of the problem. 

The gender pay gap is an important, well-known issue. Kind of like climate change. Most recognize that not addressing either of these issues will have long-term consequences that, as a planet and a society, we may not be able to recover from. But recognizing this is not the same thing as actively fighting these issues every day. Sure, maybe some of us use recyclable bags when we go grocery shopping and dutifully like the Instagram posts that advocate for women’s freedoms. But in a world where things seem to get worse faster than they get better, that feels like the bare minimum. And just to be clear, I’m calling myself out here as well. 

So, how does theory help us fight better? 

Breaking down large problems into smaller immediate struggles makes it easier to employ theory-based solutions. For example, in the Forbes article I referenced above, the gender pay gap is related to several causational and consequential factors, such as bias in hiring processes, investment in career development, and pay transparency policies. Two of these three factors can immediately be tackled employing two of our well-researched core theories: Schools of Experience and Modularity

Look further than titles to lower discrimination in hiring

The schools of experience approach was developed by Morgan McCall, a professor at the University of Southern California. It moves beyond the skills correlated with success to a circumstance-based theory that says potential leaders may have learned or developed many of their capabilities in business units that can be thought of as “schools.” This can mean that maybe an applicant to a leadership role doesn’t have an executive title on their resume, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already tackled the type of problems employers are hiring for, making them the adequate candidate. 

According to the World Economic Forum, the global share of women in leadership roles as of 2022 was 31%. So when employers are hiring for leadership roles, because of gender gaps in leadership, women may not be well represented by title…but that doesn’t mean we aren’t represented by experience. If hiring teams are trained to look further than just titles, then this could be a way to lower hiring discrimination. To identify whether any candidate has the leadership qualities being hired for, the hiring teams need to ask themselves: 

  1. What are the specific problems that we know this person will confront in this assignment? 
  2. What experiences should a person have had in order to have learned to successfully address these problems? 
  3. What “course” did this particular candidate take in the school of experience in which they confronted a problem like this one? 

Employ an interdependent approach to further women’s careers 

Another ramification of the gender pay gap that can potentially be solved employing a theoretical approach is women’s inability to invest in their own career development. Without higher pay it’s difficult, if not impossible, for women to pay for additional training and professional development that will help them get ahead and move up the career ladder. 

This is another chance for employers to step up. Modularity theory explains how different parts of a solution’s architecture relate to one another and, consequently, affect solution creation and adoption. A modular solution means many different players can tackle different components of a solution. An interdependent one means one player tackles all components of a solution. 

The gender pay gap is a large issue that can be broken down into many contributing factors and multiple consequences. These individual struggles can be thought of as “components” and where or how these components relate can be thought of as “interfaces”. A modular solution only works when interfaces between components are standardized and predictable. But the interfaces surrounding gender pay gap struggles (components) aren’t neat, or simple, or standardized; therefore, a modular solution can’t be leveraged, but an interdependent one can be. 

In addition to the schools of experience training of their hiring teams, if employers could offer career development training, courses, and networking as part of their compensation package, this could be a way to help bridge the gender pay gap. 

I’m not saying employers are the be-all and end-all solution to solving the gender pay gap. Policymakers can clearly make a substantial impact by passing more pay transparency and pay equity labor and employment laws. But I am saying that if employers step up and wrap their arms around the various individual struggles surrounding the gender pay gap, one-by-one they can make significant headway into closing that gap. 

These are just initial thoughts on two different theory approaches to granular struggles within a large problem that were spurred by one question and article. But there’s more in-depth theory research on other women’s issues, such as maternal health, that truly drives the point home of the immense impact that theory can have if leveraged to solve some of our most complex problems. 

Good theory doesn’t tell us what to think, but how to think—how to approach problems intelligently to have a higher chance of successfully solving them. So, to celebrate women this month, we should all take a moment to reflect and be inspired by these theoretical approaches.


  • Sandy Sanchez
    Sandy Sanchez

    Sandy Sanchez is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on understanding and solving global development issues through the lens of Jobs to Be Done and innovation theories. Her current work addresses how individuals can use market-creating innovations to create sustainable prosperity in growth economies.