Suffering From Wage Gap Paranoia? You’re Not Alone

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
The first time the wage gap became real to Amanda Nichols, she was at a Society for Women Engineers meeting in 2009, just before she got her first job. When she sat down for what she thought would be a simple talk about salary negotiation, the career counselors leading the meeting pushed play on a Powerpoint detailing the striking differences in pay between male engineers and their female counterparts. The women in the auditorium were urged to negotiate hard, even for their first job, or else pay the price later — literally.
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“The counselors flat out said: ‘Women don’t ask for more money and they end up making less,’” Nichols* says. “They stressed a lot that you can get raises year-over-year but if you start out making $10,000 less than you could have if you asked for it then that’s going to affect your salary for your whole life. That’s a lot of pressure at 21.” This was, frankly, something she hadn’t thought of before and the idea that salary negotiation was something you had to do before you even had experience seemed so… intense.
And this was before Sheryl Sandberg’s blockbuster Lean In came to be in 2013, launching a renaissance of discussion about the wage gap that has since invaded our cultural consciousness. If professional women didn’t get the memo that they need to negotiate harder, to ask — no demand — they be paid what they're worth, as Nichols did, they have definitely gotten it now.
“If there’s a topic of conversation in the office around the espresso machine, it’s this,” says Marc Cenedella, CEO of Ladders, a career and recruiting site. “There’s a natural anxiety that goes along with am I keeping up with the Joneses that’s reflected in these gender conversations today for very good reason.”
Now, after seven years at a large aerospace company, Nichols, 29, is currently negotiating an offer from a competitor in Seattle. She knows what she’s worth, and so she’s doing as her male colleagues and everyone else in her life have suggested: Asking for way more than she thinks she’s even going to get.
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The first thing she had to do was the application, which asked for her current salary and what salary she is looking for in her next role. “I have male friends who are like pump up your current base as much as possible, think of every possible perk at your job, and add it in,” she says. So even though she currently makes 116k in base salary, when you include her bonus and overtime, she makes about 130k. As for what she wants to make, she put down 150k. “Just writing 150 felt like, Whoa, but okay.”
Then, there was a phone call in which the recruiter asked again about salary. “The first thing that comes out of my mouth when she’s like how much do you want? I say 140 to 150, and immediately, it’s like why did I say that? Instead of just 150.”
Nonetheless, she got through the interview process with ease because she’s great at her job and perfect for the role. But when it came time for them to make an offer, the company offered a little bit less than 140. “I wonder if I had just said 150 if that would have changed things,” she says. “I don’t know.”
There’s no way of knowing, of course. Negotiation and salary still remains a black box across industries. We still regard money as a taboo conversation topic. The result, Nichols says: “It’s like if I do negotiate, and even while I’m negotiating, I’m constantly wondering: Am I still not negotiating as hard as a man is going to negotiate? Even just in my job for the past 7 years. It’s always on my mind. Am I getting paid as much as my colleagues?”
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Nichols is far from alone here. While this awareness is no doubt powerful, leading many women to negotiate harder and to go ahead and get theirs, it’s also led to a maddening level of anxiety and near-paranoia for women who are always wondering if their male colleagues are getting paid more, and who can never tell if they’re negotiating hard enough. It’s turned salary negotiation into a kind of farce, with many women being completely unsure where they as individuals fit into this overall trend that’s been proven true time and time again, across industries, across the country, and certainly across generations.
Stephanie Cohen* has been at her financial public relations job in New York for six months. This is her first job in PR (before she worked in book publishing) and she’s young, just 25, so she accepted a salary she wasn’t totally satisfied with when she started.
“[The wage gap] was in the back of mind when I accepted. I wondered if the reason they’re more doubtful of my skills going in is because I’m a girl,” she says. But then again, there’s no proof of this, no reason to believe it other than that’s the story we’re told to be wary of.
And otherwise, Cohen loves her job and she’s great at it: Since her start, she’s been added to multiple accounts, and she’s even been involved in a few big wins for the firm. So, even though it makes her want to die inside, she recently emailed her boss to ask for a review during which she plans to make the case for a raise.
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“Basically I’m just always paranoid I’m leaving money on the table. It’s one of the reasons I feel so pressured to ask for a raise right now because I just feel like if I don’t I’m making a mistake,” she says. “I’m young now, but looking at the horizon of the rest of my life, eventually, I’m going to have a family, and that might slow things down. So I need to make sure I get a high enough salary now.”
To be fair, “guys have anxiety about salary negotiation too, but it has a different flavor to it,” Cenedella says. Men are worried about strategy and how to do do it; women are straight up uncomfortable with the idea they deserve it — even when, intellectually, they know they absolutely do.
“I felt like I was taking advantage of the business,” says Erin Harris*, 28, of her last salary negotiation. Harris recently took a job as a retail manager in Iowa. Because her previous job was salaried, she knew she would probably have to take a pay cut, but it was worth it for all the opportunities for commission. Still, even though she didn’t love doing the asking, she got her employer to up her hourly wage, and cover her cell phone bill and gym membership.
“In my last job, I sat on a board for women at work that deals with issues like this all over midwest, the wage gap and confidence and negotiating. I know it’s an issue,” she says. “But still, even when I knew it was fair what I was asking for, I felt bad about it.”
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The root of this anxiety is understandable of course because women really are judged differently than their male peers for doing the same thing, for asking for more and advocating for themselves. “I don’t think anyone wants to believe that but it’s true in reality,” says Nikki Wells*, 32, a sales manager for a biotech company in San Diego. “I think we have the tendency to overanalyze a bit as well as women in the first place. So we’re stuck wondering is this the right thing for me to be doing in the first place? And obviously the answer is yes, but there’s always the thought of the backlash and how others are going to perceive you doing that.”
Sandberg surely didn’t have “stress women out even more” on her list of goals of Lean In, but ironically, leaning into that anxiety and paranoia is actually what works to get women to do something that can feel extremely uncomfortable to them.
As for Nichols, she replied to the company's less-than-perfect offer with an ask to double her signing bonus, an action she describes as “simultaneously empowering and terrifying.” She may ask for more, too. The deal is far from over she explains, partly because the thought of explaining her new job to her family and friends is looming.
“People in my life are going to want a rundown of what happened and I feel like they’re going to be disappointed in me if I didn’t ask for it,” she says. She mentions her dad and “other people in the know about how women don’t necessarily advocate for themselves and the pay gap,” knowing she’ll have to answer to them. “I know they will say, 'Wait why didn’t you ask for more?'”
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*Names and some identifying details have been changed.
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