Exactly What To Say When Discussing Salary

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
We write and talk a lot about the gender wage gap. There is a lot of data that proves it's real — and that it's not just happening in Hollywood. But what happens when you’re the woman who’s making less than your male counterpart?

Kate* is a graphic designer for a small firm in the Seattle area, and she found herself in that very situation. She was happy with her recent raise — until she found out a male coworker with less experience was making more than her. Since she had just gotten the salary increase, she didn’t feel like she could ask for another, and she felt unsure if she should take action. Can she renegotiate her salary even though she just got a bump? Are things so bad she needs to take legal action? Or, is it just time to look for another job?

“Under the law, an employer can’t pay different wages to male and female employees, but there are merit determinations that might be accepted as a reason for doing so,” explains Fatima Goss Graves, the vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).

Many women struggle deciding whether a lawsuit is worth it. “Most people legitimately fear retaliation for coming forward,” says Goss Graves. She suggests giving your employer every opportunity to fix it first. “Sometimes, wage gaps develop inadvertently,” says Goss Graves. But if they're on purpose? “That may, in fact, require legal action.”

Under the law, an employer can’t pay different wages to male and female employees.

Fatima Goss Graves
If you want to know more about discrimination lawsuits, Goss Graves suggests speaking to a lawyer and reaching out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Civil Rights Center at the Department of Labor. But, before you lawyer up, there are ways to protect and promote yourself to make sure you’re getting a fair salary.

Start with research, says Katie Donovan, the founder of Equal Pay Negotiations, a consulting firm that helps employers and employees work toward equal pay. Find out what your job should be paying. If you’ve been working somewhere for a while, you’re usually being paid less than an employee who was hired later, Donovan explains. As the country continues to recover from the recession, the job market has gotten increasingly competitive. Today, the average employee gets a 10 to 20% salary increase when he or she takes a new job, according to Forbes, but only a 3% annual raise on average for staying put.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Donovan suggests going to websites like PayScale that can show median salaries for your job by industry and location, so you have a sense of where your salary lands. “There’s more than enough research out there,” Donovan says. Once you have data in hand, “If you’re not getting the median [salary] or above, you need to start talking to your employer — or start looking for something else.”

Going to your boss with this kind of an issue isn’t easy. Surveys show that women are far less likely than men to negotiate their offered salaries or to ask for a raise. But if you’re being underpaid, it’s time to talk.

Don’t go in immediately claiming bias or sexism, says Lisa Gates, a career coach and co-founder of She Negotiates, a company that offers consulting, training, and mediation services designed for professional women. “Think of negotiation as a communication discipline," she suggests, "not manipulation.”

Think of negotiation as a communication discipline, not manipulation.

Lisa Gates
Gates and her co-founder Victoria Pynchon suggest you begin negotiations by asking open-ended questions. “Be diagnostic, not threatening,” says Pynchon. “If Tom is making more than you, go in and ask why. ‘What’s he doing that I’m not?’ Say that before asking for a raise. Let your manager see the problem first and have the chance to fix it.”

When it's time to talk numbers, have a figure prepared — and don’t sell yourself short. “After you’ve done your market research, most women will cotton to the median. But do you consider yourself a median performer? Why not put yourself at the top of the scale?” asks Gates.

And what if your employer doesn't offer to close the gap? Ask for concrete reasons, not subjective ones, so that unconscious bias can be rooted out. “If they say, ‘Tom’s a team player.’ Ask: 'What does that mean? What is that assessment based on?'” says Pynchon.

Another way to prevent the gap is by openly discussing salaries with coworkers. Some companies try to dissuade these conversations by saying it’s against policy. But make no mistake: It’s illegal to forbid the discussion of salary in the workplace. Yes, it can be awkward to talk money with coworkers, but a culture of transparency is one of the best ways to address pay discrepancies. “Pay discrimination is often hidden,” says Goss Graves. “Most of the time, people don’t know it’s happening at all.”
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
If it’s really not something you want to talk about at happy hour, take the conversation online. Websites like PayScale, Salary, and Glassdoor let you post your own salary information anonymously, so you can help increase transparency in pay for your industry and company without having to tell anyone you know what you’re taking home every month.

Another way to inspire institutional change, according to Donovan at Equal Pay Negotiations, is to take your talent elsewhere. If women continue to choose to work for companies that pay better and aren’t discriminating against women, businesses that don’t might not be able to fill the jobs they need to. “Companies cannot survive if they don’t figure out how to have a staff that looks similar to the actual world,” Donovan says.

Like so many things at work, negotiating a fair salary can be an awkward conversation — especially if you’re wrestling with the knowledge that a man is making more than you for doing the same job. There’s a lot of power in communicating and being knowledgeable about your worth. By stepping up and asking for what you deserve, you’ll do your part in closing the gender wage gap.

*Kate’s name has been changed.

More from Work & Money