As a workplace advice columnist, I receive lots of letters about how to ask for a raise. One piece of advice I’ve traditionally given over and over is to base your raise request on your own work and not to use your coworker’s salary as an argument for why you should be paid more. But there’s one big exception to that: when the disparity in your salary might be based on gender.
It can be incredibly frustrating when you realize or suspect that you’re being paid less than your male coworkers. A big part of that frustration is because many women have internalized the idea that we shouldn’t compare our salaries to coworkers’, or we think we’re not supposed to know what our coworkers make at all. In just the last few months, I’ve had conversations with half a dozen women who learned that male colleagues doing similar work were getting paid significantly more, but who were afraid to say anything because “we’re not supposed to know what other people make,” or “if I bring it up, my boss will want to know where my information came from.” Also, it’s not always easy to be confident that what you’re seeing is rooted in sexism; you might wonder whether it could have some more legitimate explanation, and that can make you doubt yourself and feel squeamish about speaking up.
Before we go any further, let’s be clear: Paying men and women differently for the same work is illegal. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 outlawed paying “less than the rate at which [the employer] pays wages to employees of the opposite sex … for equal work.” But it happens. And it happens for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s outright, open sexism. But more often, it’s more subtle than that—like that men negotiate more aggressively or successfully than women, or are more forthright about going after raises. Some studies even show that women are perceived more poorly when they try to negotiate.
So if you’re facing this issue yourself, or wonder if you are, how can speak up professionally and effectively? As part of APW’s career conversations with Squarespace, I want to help you answer that question. Here’s what to do if you suspect or find out that you’re being paid less than similarly qualified male coworkers:
1. Get past any awkwardness about comparing salaries. We have a cultural norm of not talking openly about pay, and that tends to be especially true within our own individual offices. That, of course, makes it harder to find out about salary disparities and harder to talk about them when they’re uncovered. Employers generally take full advantage of that and discourage people from sharing information about their pay. But if you suspect you’re being paid less than male coworkers, talking with your coworkers is going to be one of the fastest, most direct ways to gather information. Don’t let feelings of awkwardness around salary discussions stop you from pushing forward with getting the information you need. If you’re not comfortable asking a colleague to tell you his or her salary, you can often get plenty of information by simply saying, “What’s your sense of what someone in this role here should be earning?”
(By the way, those “don’t discuss your salary with each other” rules are often illegal. The National Labor Relations Act says that employers cannot prohibit nonsupervisory employees from discussing pay with each other, although workplace policies doing exactly that are oddly common anyway.)
2. Analyze the situation as objectively as possible. There are legitimate reasons why a coworker doing similar work might be making more than you—things like coming in with more experience, a particular kind of experience or educational background, or producing a higher level of results (such as bringing in more clients or managing more complex projects). But if you look at your coworker’s qualifications and work output and don’t see an explanation for the pay differential, you might be looking at a wage gap that’s tied to gender in some way.
3. Talk with your manager. Start out with something like this: “Given the recent attention paid to gender-based salary inequality, I’m concerned about the salary disparity between Bob and me. Can you help me understand why our salaries are so different, despite the fact that we started here at the same time and I manage a larger team than he does?”
Note that at this stage, you’re approaching the conversation as if you’re seeking to understand the salary disparity—not necessarily making a complaint (yet). After all, there might be reasons for the gap that you’d find compelling but don’t yet know about, so you don’t want to go in guns blazing. You can always escalate the seriousness of your tone and your actions if you need to. (If you’re wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to just ask for a raise without invoking your coworker’s salary at all, that’s certainly an option, and you could simply use your knowledge of your coworker’s salary as background information that helps you figure out how much to ask for. But with that approach, you risk getting a raise that doesn’t close the gap. Plus, there’s value in explicitly pointing out that your employer may have a gender problem in how they’re paying people.)
4. Don’t let the conversation become about how you know your coworker’s salary. Some managers might focus on how and why you know your male coworker’s salary. If that happens, try redirecting the conversation with, “I really don’t want us to get sidetracked on that question, because the real issue is the pay disparity. For the purpose of this conversation, can we tackle that?”
5. If you don’t get anywhere with your manager, talk with HR. HR is more likely to be trained to recognize that gender pay gaps can pose significant legal and PR problems for the company, so they may be more easily moved to action. Your boss, on the other hand, may not be thrilled that you’ve gone over her head, so it’s smart to also ask HR to ensure that you don’t face retaliation from your manager for talking with them. (This should go without saying, but retaliation can be subtle—sometimes subtle to the point that managers don’t even realize they’re doing it, so it can be helpful for HR to remind them.)
6. If you believe that gender discrimination is in play, you have legal options available to you. You can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and they’ll request pay data from your employer and investigate the complaint. Or, if you’re not sure that you want to go that route, you might find it helpful to talk with a lawyer about what your next steps should be. Talking with a lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean suing; lawyers can help with all sorts of steps that don’t involve actual lawsuits—even just advising you in the background while you negotiate with your employer.
Advocating for what your work is worth can be uncomfortable, especially when it means pointing out potential sexism—or law-breaking!—in your workplace. But the more we keep quiet when we suspect gender-based pay disparities, the easier it is for the problem to continue. On the flip side of that, the more we advocate for ourselves and each other and the more we bring pay inequality into the open, the less the burden will fall to individual women to fix the problem on their own.
have you successfully negotiated for a pay raise? what worked for you—and what didn’t?
This post was sponsored by Squarespace. This year we are partnering with Squarespace to bring you a series of career conversations about what it means to be a woman in the workplace in 2016. If you’re in the market for a new job or looking to explore your options, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to create a home online where you can show off your work in the form of a portfolio site, an online resume, or another hub where you can display just how awesome you are. Squarespace provides the creative tools that make it easy to build your online home beautifully, even if you’ve never made a website before and have no idea where to start. In conjunction with our career series this year, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW16 at checkout. Click here to get your website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.
Meet APW Business Woman Erin Szymanski!
My name is Erin Szymanski, and I’m the owner of Glitter & Grit, an indie bridal boutique in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I use Squarespace for the website for my store so potential clients can find a fresh representation of my brand online. I really wanted to update my old website to something with a homepage that would be a true attention-grabber, but that I could still update myself. I set up my Squarespace site one hundred percent independently and am so thrilled with the results, and with the ease of both setting up the site and maintaining it. It’s so user-friendly that I can quickly make changes and updates and move on to other tasks.