Opinion: Is the USAID 1420 biodata form contributing to the gender pay gap?

USAID Contractor Employee Biographical Data Sheet.

Whether you call it a 1420, a biodata form, or simply an “EBD”, anyone who has worked on a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded contract is well acquainted with the “contractor employee biographical data sheet.” A mandatory government form, it requires basic information such as education, language proficiency, work history, and yes, salary history but it could also breed job hopping and, worst of all, cement gender pay gaps.

USAID contractors are typically required to submit a completed, signed form for any key personnel they propose under a solicitation. This could be for a chief of party, director of finance or a technical specialist role. It is such a routine task that many experienced professionals keep an updated biodata form as readily available as their CV. A key responsibility of many entry level roles, tracking down and finalizing biodatas can be a rite of passage for aspiring global development workers.

Explicitly or not, the main purpose of this form is to help establish and justify the salary a candidate would receive under the contract, with the key criteria being their 3 years’ previous salary history. Common practice is to grant a 5% (and no more than 10%) raise on their highest salary within the past 3 years. A contractor proposing more than that standard 5-10% increase will raise flags and likely a protest from the USAID contracting officer, a situation I experienced many times in my previous life as a USAID contractor proposal recruiter.

While in 2007, USAID updated the Personnel Compensation clause in the USAID Acquisition Regulations, AIDAR, to let contractors set rates “in accordance with the [their] established policies, procedures, and practices, and the cost principles applicable to [the] contract,” many USAID contracts still include a rule limiting rates based on the previous three years’ highest salary.

Even when not required, some contractors still abide by this standard when setting rates with their staff out of habit or because they lack established policies in its place. Market salary surveys and benchmarks are not commonly used in our sector so absent other data the EBD form can serve as an easy crutch, including for determining salaries for non-USAID funded positions.

As I have personally witnessed over the years, setting compensation based on previous salary history can breed stark inequalities between what team members are paid, often for the same work. I remember staffing a USAID rule of law project with an extremely qualified chief of party candidate who had years of experience managing complex democracy and governance programs in the sector.

Our deputy chief of party was new to development, but was making a career switch from a law firm where his annual salary went well beyond the USAID maximum. Thanks to their biodata history, you can guess who was paid more. The fact that the chief of party was a woman, being paid less than her less experienced male deputy, only fueled the sense of inequality this system of compensation brought.

It is well documented that women statistically make less than men, even for the same jobs and roles, starting in early career and widening as they grow in seniority. As a way to combat pay inequality, many states in the United States like Massachusetts and California have now made it illegal to ask a job candidate about their salary history. Instead, there is a growing consensus that salaries should be based on market rates and how valuable their skills are to the employer. The idea is a lower starting salary doesn’t have to haunt a woman for the rest of her career.

While there is little data on the gender pay gap within USAID-funded contract work, I’ve spoken with many professionals over the years, including many women, who blame this form for stifling their salary growth. A common example is a woman taking a less demanding role, with less pay, for a couple of years while raising a family. When she is ready to jump back into a more demanding role she finds that she can no longer earn what she used to because she no longer has the salary history to back it up. Others lament not negotiating harder in their first role, not realizing it would impede their compensation growth in future roles.

Additionally, job hopping in the sector is incentivized when a professional’s best chance for a raise is to land a new gig where they can all but guarantee that 5-10% increase. This can cause a project unnecessary disruption which negatively impacts its overall progress and success. It also discourages both men and women from ever taking a pay cut, even if it would be for a position they would love or where they would learn valuable new skills, maybe working for an organization that can’t afford the typical USAID contractor rates. A pay cut for a year can translate to a pay cut in perpetuity.

So, what does that mean for the biodata form? Many USAID contractors are located in states that have passed laws against employers asking for salary history. In addition to Massachusetts and California, states like Delaware and Oregon and cities like New York and New Orleans have recently enacted laws. These contractors have been privately and publicly questioning the legality of such forms and many taking steps to review and update their compensation policies.

This question was raised in the Q4 2017 USAID Business Forecast call when someone asked if these “actions at the state level have any bearing on the collection of salary history on the Biodata Form 1420 in use under acquisition at USAID”. USAID provided this response:

“This state-level ban has no bearing on the collection of salary history on the Biodata Form 1420 required for contractor proposals under USAID solicitations. USAID is not requiring the salary history for purposes of making a job offer, but for negotiation of a fair and reasonable rate. The salary history is one of several factors considered by the contracting officer in negotiations, such as the current market rate or salary range for a given labor category.”

USAID may well be correct that state and city-level bans on collecting salary history will not impede the continued use of the EBD form. That is a complex legal issue Devex will continue to investigate. And surely changing a form and process so ingrained in the way a major government agency like USAID and its partners have done business for years will not be easy. It will require a cultural shift for many organizations. But a sector tasked with promoting gender equality and lifting up women across the world ought to take a hard look at its own policies and the damage they may be doing closer to home.

About the author

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    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.