I'm Being Paid Less Than My Male Coworker! What Can I Do?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Welcome to The FAQs of Life, R29's new advice column. Each Tuesday, Colette will offer her sage wisdom on modern life and all its stumbling blocks. If you've got a query you'd like her to take on, send it to FAQs@refinery29.com or leave it in the comments. 

THE Q:
 I was out drinking with my colleagues when a newly hired guy told a group of us how much he makes. We've got the exact same title, he's new to the team, and, not to "toot my own horn," but I clearly have more experience and skills than he does — and he makes a TON more than I do. 

I wanted to shout, "Pay discrimination! Pay discrimination!" right there, since the only obvious difference is that I'm a woman. But, what I realized is, this is a problem I've read lots about but have no idea how to fix, IRL. I can't exactly storm into my boss's office demanding a raise based on something I heard in a bar...can I? — Girl Addressing Payment Problems

THE A: Oh, man. If only you'd asked something easy, like which Hillary Duff single makes the best breakup anthem ("Come Clean," obviously), we could have wrapped this up in a minute. But, GAPP, this is tricky stuff — there are legal issues, practical issues, social issues, plus it's just plain hard to talk about money. (I once went a whole month as a sort of unpaid babysitting intern because I was too flustered to ask for my money. I didn't get paid until the dad realized I was withholding the change from ordering pizza.) 

To start: Pay discrimination is 100% illegal. Since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, it has been against the law to compensate someone "less than the rate at which [the company] pays wages to employees of the opposite sex...for equal work." So, if that's happening, it's a crime. 

But, that doesn't mean there's an easy fix: Just a couple months ago, the Sony hack revealed that the company was paying female employees significantly less than the men. Although the co-presidents of production at Columbia Pictures, Michael De Luca and Hannah Minghella, have the exact same job, De Luca makes almost a million dollars more. In other words, grown-ass women whose salaries get counted in the millions are struggling with this. 


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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
So, first off, don't feel bad. Second off, we have to do something about this reluctance to “toot our own horns.” I say we, GAPP, because all women are trapped in an age-old catch-22 that conflates assertiveness with masculinity. Women are hesitant to brag about their accomplishments for the same reason they avoid negotiating: We're socialized from a young age to be modest. In its purest, distilled form, "modesty" means "know thy place, woman." This culture rewards men who think highly of themselves, and punishes women who do the same. Studies have shown that women get penalized for seeking raises, even before negotiations begin. Advocating for oneself isn’t sufficiently feminine; in fact, people can find it “unseemly.” Yet, being overly modest and deferential will also hinder your career, since these aren’t qualities we seek in a leader. What’s a girl to do?

You must dare to challenge these sexist expectations, GAPP. Obviously, you should couch your braggadocio in language that isn’t so, well, obvious, but you have to be your own spokeswoman. It is far more dangerous to undervalue your skills and qualifications than it is to overvalue them. Think of it as this: Be your own Kanye West. A more work-appropriate Kanye West. (Don’t storm into your office screaming, “I AM A GOD,” okay?) At the end of the day, this isn’t about some male coworker getting more than you, this is about you accepting less than you deserve.

That's my pep talk. But, what do you do about this higher-earning male coworker — like, at work tomorrow? For that, I brought in an expert, Alison Green, a management consultant, onetime boss herself, and writer of Ask a Manager, for some advice: 

“There's plenty of data showing that pay disparities exist between men and women, and if you suspect that's the case here, I don't want to discourage you from addressing that. But, in general, it's not a good idea to bring up a coworker's salary when negotiating your own — you should present a case based on your own value,” she advises. “It's also important to remember that salaries vary for all sorts of reasons, like one person was a better negotiator than the other when first being hired, or the job market was tighter when he was hired, or he's especially great at what he does, or he has a particular skill set that the company rewards, or the budget for his department is different than yours.” So, it’s possible that the salary difference doesn’t have a gender component at all. Instead of relying on workplace gossip, Green recommends “doing some research on industry norms in your area for your particular work, and seeing where you fall relative to those. That's going to give you better information than what one single coworker makes.” 
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

Charlize Theron negotiated a $10 million raise after the Sony hack revealed her Huntsman co-star, Chris Hemsworth, was receiving a heftier salary, but of course, there are a ton of things that Charlize can do that we mere mortals should never attempt. (That list includes pulling off a cropped pixie and wearing drop-crotch pleated-waist pants.) 

While you technically can bring up the discrepancy during your negotiation — under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers have the right to discuss their pay — a better idea would be to ask your boss how you fall “in terms of pay relative to your coworkers,” as Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, suggests. “Your boss will likely not tell you what others earn, but getting an understanding of your relative ranking will be useful knowledge for you,” Babcock says. “If you are indeed one of the lower-paid employees, ask if your pay rank relatives your performance rank. If not, you can begin a discussion about remedying this."

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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How do you successfully negotiate a raise? “Build a case for why you’ve earned a raise, and for why your company is better off because of your work," says Green. "For example, maybe you can show a file of glowing compliments you’ve received from clients, or show that your idea increased revenue by $X, or that you inherited a backlog of case files that's now been cleared out through your work.” Also, use websites like Glassdoor or GetRaised to figure out what’s industry standard, and bring those numbers into your meeting. 

I talked to my friend Anna Chelak, who successfully negotiated her own raise, to see how she handled the pressure. (Full disclosure: She’s also the type of person who regularly updates her LinkedIn and eats a grapefruit a day, so... ) 

Anna, now an associate marketing manager at The New Yorker, decided "to put on some big-girl pants and step out of the ‘entry level’ position pool.” She says, “I’d never negotiated salary, but I knew that before going into a conversation about pricing anything, you need to be able to create leverage.” She determined what other people in her position were making, and chose to aim for the higher end of that bracket. “Confidence was key in this whole exchange — I couldn't sound like I didn't know what I was talking about. I figured that they'd obviously try to buy me at less than what they could actually afford, so before we really started talking, I named my price at a pretty steep number. I was just proud to stand up for myself, stick to parameters that I had decided upon, and have a well-supported plan of attack...everything managed to work out.” 

GAPP, you already have the power to negotiate a higher salary, because you’ve done all the day-to-day work, filing reports and closing deals and being a boss behind the scenes. All you have to do now is advocate for yourself. You don’t have to appease anyone who tries to underestimate you.
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