Are option grants promoting gender and racial inequity?

You’ve probably seen them on highway billboards and your Instagram feeds: startups promising to get it right on racial and gender inequity when it comes to employee pay. But how much progress has actually been made? Are companies even aware that upcoming stock option grants might worsen the very problem they claim to be fixing?

Last week, a top female executive at well-known equity management platform Carta resigned, alleging hypocrisy in the company’s public advertisements for equity compensation — or the now infamous statement by their CEO “Fair equity should be table stakes” — and their actual stance on correcting these wrongs within the company. This top executive was Emily Kramer, the very Harvard MBA brought on board in part to help improve stock option inequity at Carta and within its thousands of company users. These developments left me wondering what more can be done by leaders in equity management to help ameliorate these issues before they get harder to solve.

Anyone who’s worked closely to venture capital and tech in America knows that stock options are a key lever of attracting top talent, especially for companies with risky business models and low odds of success. Yet, equity compensation has received much less attention than cash pay. Further, this “paper wealth” can be invaluable to women and persons of color as the country attempts to attack its shameful income inequality. If you’ve had the opportunity to work with Carta, then you also know that gender and racial inequity in compensation exists with stock options too, not just cash.

Carta must act swiftly to implement a new feature across its entire platform: an alert to startup founders and legal administrators that upcoming option grants result in gender and racial inequity, when compared with the rest of the company’s employees doing similar work. Backed by the precept of “equal work, equal pay,” Carta has a unique opportunity to use its near informational monopoly to ameliorate “equity inequity” and make good on unkept promises. This feature ensures internal parity: that women and persons of color are compensated by equity grants on par with white and/or male colleagues performing the same work, in similar positions.

Having input equity compensation into Carta myself as a startup attorney, there’s no way I could have known if new grants were equitable across the capitalization table, unless Carta sent an alert or the company circulated its own report. The sad reality is that it’s way too challenging to independently perform this review on your own. Carta can because it’s a clearinghouse for equity compensation, used by more than 14,000 companies across the marketplace, with unique access to the tools and information required to know if a company’s astray from its stated values.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if Carta notified a client’s management team and lawyers that new grants didn’t achieve gender and racial equity while they still had a chance to adjust the numbers, before board grants? According to Carta’s own 2019 gender equity gap study published following a review of a sample of their own users’ capitalization tables, male founders represented 6.5% of equity holders but own 64% of all equity. Further, at the employee level, female employees own 49 cents in equity for every dollar men own. If companies affirmatively understood the gravity of their actions, the state of paper wealth in the United States would be far more equitable and inclusive.

I’d imagine social justice-minded companies would be happy to make adjustments to stock grants when it was easiest, not after the fact. After all, once options are granted by the board, it becomes an administrative hassle to redo. Yes, many companies do internal audits afterwards, uncovering inequities — but it’s usually too late or burdensome to make all of these employees whole, some of whom might have already departed. Let’s not forget that startups generally can’t even grant options to individuals no longer providing services to their company. A proactive, preemptive approach is not only reasonable, but required. Carta’s well-placed to make up for its broken promises by nudging users to get it right the first time.

Remember, later-stage companies have the money to perform comprehensive equity pay analysis, but early-stage companies often don’t. It’s at formation when inequities are easiest and cheapest to tackle, particularly for the promising early-stage, future unicorns that Carta spends so much time attracting in its successful Launch program — one that offers discounted services to retain startups as they grow. Attorneys, board members, startup operators — heck, even the most junior staff — need to be unafraid in using Carta as a tool to help bring these issues to light.

I want to believe that companies that promise racial and gender equity in compensation make it happen, but not all do. Some don’t care. But others are just overloaded with pitch decks, Slack notifications and the immense expectations of investors searching for big returns. It’s not an excuse, just a reality. What a difference it would make if Carta let management know of the problem before it was too widespread to fix.