Five words that I’ll never forget and taught me so much about gender and the salary gap. Years ago I was reviewing salaries of my new team members when I discovered that one of those members, a male, was being paid more than I was for the role I was recently in. Needless to say, I was shocked. We both had similar experience, same number of years, same industry experience and yet he was being paid 10K more than I had been. When I brought this to the attention of my boss, her response – yes HER, but we’ll get to that later – was that he was being paid what he was “…because he asked for it”.
I wasn’t ignorant of women’s issues regarding salary in the workplace and was aware of the studies that most of us hear about when they make headline news. That said, I never thought it would happen to me. When I started with the company, just a few months prior to my male counterpart, I thought what I was being offered was fair. It was even slightly more than what I was earning at my previous employer. It never occurred to me to ask for more. This may lead some of you to think, what’s the issue then? If I was being paid what I perceived to be fair and it was an increase over my previous salary, no matter how small, then what is all the fuss about it, even if the other guy was getting more for the same role. But therein lies the rub.
Feminists have long heralded the slogan “Equal pay for equal work”. As someone who has worked in HR, specifically the area of Talent, I understand better than most that there are nuances that saying does not take into account, like specific industry knowledge, tech/platform experience specific to that job, etc. All of which will affect how quickly and effectively someone is able to contribute. But all things being equal, there is no reason why two employees should receive varying starting salaries.
As you can imagine, this burned for a long time. The most upsetting part and the irony of the story was that this behaviour was perpetuated by a woman. This was no innocent bystander, watching something wrong happen but being powerless to change it. In fact, the opposite was true. She was the leader of our department and had full decision-making power on the topic of salary. What happened to the sisterhood? ‘Women empowering women’, and all those other sayings that end up as popular hashtags?
This situation prompted me to question things, many about myself, that I hadn’t before. It also taught me some very valuable lessons, ones that I’ll never forget.
1. Know Your Worth
First, it is my responsibility to know my worth. I also need to keep abreast of what value the market places on my set of skills. The latter helps keep the former accountable. It is less subjective if I have data to refer to and gives me the confidence needed to have productive salary discussions.
2. Ask for What You Want
I’ve also learned that I have to ask for what I want. Not just in conversations about pay but in every aspect of life. It doesn’t mean I’ll always get it, but it does mean that I have to think about and consciously acknowledge what that is and then make the request. As I recently heard someone say, “if you don’t show up to the table, somebody else will decide what you’ll eat”.
3. Question Everything
In my case I relied on the organization to treat me equitably. And while I don’t believe that they deliberately set out to do me wrong, they also did not act in my best interest. The relationship between gender and salary are long-standing issues in companies, deeply ingrained in the organizational culture and attitudes toward compensation. Knowing this, it falls on me to do my homework and ask questions. Had I done this initially, it wouldn’t have taken me very long to discover some very uncomfortable truths about my new employer.
I have now become my best advocate. It has also inspired me to put my own experiences to good use by working with women to assist them in advancing in the workplace. The issue of gender and pay won’t be solved tomorrow but the more of us that stand up against it, the better our chances of changing this practice.