WWYD: My Female Friend Found Out She Earns Less Than All Her Male Coworkers

How can she ask for what she deserves?

Silence of the Lambs

Hi Billfold,

This is actually on behalf of a friend, let’s call her Catherine. Catherine is a principal architect at a firm with seven other principals and she is the only female. There are two principals with less experience. Catherine both manages and brings in more work than most of her male counterparts (regardless of experience).

Catherine recently discovered that she makes the least amount, as in the SMALLEST SALARY, of all the principals. She knows this information because one of the accounts (and one of the only other females at the agency) shared this information in confidence.

Catherine plans to ask for more money as part of her upcoming performance review, but asking to be compensated at a level comparable to her counterparts is not the same as asking for a raise. Plus, if she reveals how she knows about this (gender) wage gap it could put her coworker at risk. How would you go about this? How do you legally ask for compensation at the same rate as your male counterparts?

I work in the public sector and have access to posted salaries, so this territory is new for me.


Amy The Friend

Hi Amy!

I love this question, even though it’s a hard one, because it’s about REDRESSING A WRONG. Catherine plans to ask for money; Catherine deserves money; Catherine has a good case to get more money. This sounds promising. Who knows? Maybe your friend’s supervisors feel a little bad, in a niggling, pea-under-the-mattress way, about how Catherine’s been such a valuable and yet under-valued member of the team and will be grateful for an opportunity to make things right.

OK, that’s overly optimistic. Still, it may help for Catherine to go into these negotiations with a hopeful and positive attitude, rather than a grim or pessimistic one. I’m a strong believer in the idea that a person’s approach can significantly affect their results. She should go in upbeat but firm, armed with facts (her own accomplishments and her own ideas for her future at the company) and figures (what people at her level and with her responsibilities make at other similar organizations, as well as in house; see: Salary.com, Glassdoor.com, PayScale, GetRaised, and others), and with two numbers in mind: what she’s going to ask for, and what she’s willing to settle for.

I’m not sure the distinction between asking for a raise and asking to be paid as much as her coworkers is a useful one. She’s asking for a higher salary, right? That’s a raise. That’s what she needs to focus on. After all, the goal isn’t to accuse anyone of discrimination or to get management to agree that the status quo is unfair. The goal is for Catherine to walk out of the door of the negotiation feeling either more satisfied about staying — or else prepared to leave.

It might also help to have some perks in mind to request in lieu of salary. If Catherine’s company can’t promise to bring her compensation up to where it needs to be, can they give her something else in exchange? In lieu of a 20% raise, for example, how about a 20% reduction in hours (a four-day week)? Flexibility or other benefits could generate rewards that may, to her, be even more valuable than cash.

In summary: any discussion of her coworkers’ compensation should be brought up as part of the larger issue of bringing her compensation more in line with the industry standard. I think it makes sense to address it, but she will do best to be careful not to impute any motive to the original setting of her salary vs. theirs. And, if asked how she knows her coworkers’ pay, she should demur and shift the focus back to the key point here, which is how to make sure she is paid appropriately, given her seniority, experience, and value to her employers.

A general survey of Internet experts finds consensus on this issue.

FastCompany suggests that anyone who has found out someone junior or on par with them makes more can bring up fairness in a discussion about a raise, but only as part of the larger picture. You should place far more emphasis on yourself than anyone else: what you’ve brought to your place of business, what you’re excited to bring in the future.

When you do have that discussion, you should justify your request primarily with your accomplishments in the workplace. There is nothing wrong, though, with pointing out that you are basing your salary request in part on your knowledge of what other people in the company are making.

The most important thing in your salary negotiations, though, is to ask for what you want. There is a tendency for people to make guesses about what they believe their manager will give them in salary and then to ask for something in that range, even if they feel that they should be being paid more than that.

Ask for what you want. Simple advice but a good reminder all the same. Another good reminder: “it is usually much more expensive for companies to replace employees than it is to keep them happy.”

Don’t complain, warns the Money section of Time. Don’t spend too much time comparing, either, because that too may be seen as unprofessional. Focus on what you’ve done, what you’re earning now, and what you know you’re worth.

“Managers will be more open to talking about your specific case than they will be to comparing one person’s case to another’s,” says Sherry Moss, a professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University School of Business. “Whether you know your co-worker’s salary or not, you are better off demonstrating to your manager why you are worth more money than you are currently making.” Even if you’re lucky enough not to work for one of the companies that implicitly or explicitly discourages salary discussions, it’s not professional to bring up what someone else makes for comparison. Instead, remind your boss what you earn (they don’t necessarily know off the top of their head) and when you got your last raise.

Money also advises that you be willing to leave, if necessary. Don’t bluff; actually prep your resume and review your contacts.

Harvard Business Review, interestingly, recommends getting more information from HR. (Assuming you have an HR department; the last time I worked at a job that did it was 2007.)

You don’t want to undermine your relationship with your manager, which Dillon describes as “the single most important relationship you have at work.” But when it comes to bolstering your argument for a raise, you need as much information as you can get. She recommends reaching out to your organization’s HR department for context, with your boss’s blessing. “HR will likely have a very clinical conversation with you about your company’s pay scale bands [but] it will give you a better sense about the salary range for positions equivalent to yours.” When you know where you fall — top, bottom, or somewhere in the middle — you can better understand the extent of room for growth and “where your company is in terms of its ability to give raises,” adds Menon. She advises approaching the conversation from a point of “curiosity and cooperation” and having “specific questions” at the ready. “Don’t accuse and don’t be presumptuous.” If you discover you’re in a “lower pay bracket, and you’re a high performer, the onus is on HR to explain it to you in the name of transparency.”

And Lifehacker offers some useful tips for the negotiation itself.

Here are some other tips to help you when asking for a raise:

* Before you ask for a raise, answer the questions on your boss’s mind

* Negotiate the raise you deserve with actual money, not percentages

* Walk into a salary negotiation with the right list of accomplishments

* Negotiate the salary you want with the Briefcase Technique

Tell Catherine we’re in her corner! And let us know how things go.

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