According to a study by Payscale.com, women tend to top out their compensation at age 37, while men keep getting raises until age 45. Even more infuriating, while men’s salaries in the study rose to an average of $95,000, women’s plateaued at just $61,000.
The good-ish news? There is one swath of women who outearn men: Single women under 30 who live in large cities tend to make more than their male peers, but after this brief halcyon period (which doesn’t apply in rural areas or to women with children anyway), we tend to lose ground.
Experts point to two key causes: family obligations and the fact that women tend not to pursue fair compensation as aggressively as men. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
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How You Can Earn More
Whether you’re a 23-year-old city girl or a 45-year-old mom in a small town, it’s time to look at what you make with a critical eye. We want you to get all you deserve and more — until the year you decide to retire.
Ask yourself these key questions, which well help you buck this frustrating trend:
1. Did you negotiate your entry salary?
“It is absolutely critical to negotiate your best offer on your way into a company,” says Lynne Sarikas, Director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University. “This becomes your starting point for future increases and is the base for any bonuses.” Think of it this way: If you accept the first offer you get, each pay increase after that will be lower because of that first few thousand you left on the table.
If you realize you’ve made this mistake after it’s too late, go into your next job ready to recoup the loss. Or, as Lauren Lyons Cole, a certified financial planner in the LearnVest Ask an Expert center says: The six-month mark is a great time to negotiate a raise. Keep a list of your accomplishments from day one and how they’ve helped the company.
2. How is your performance measured?
In this study, the compensation gap between men and women was biggest in jobs where performance was evaluated more subjectively than objectively. In other words, when you’re measured on the metrics, as opposed to how competent your boss perceives you to be (which could be influenced by your gender), the gap between what women and men make narrows.
The fix: Boost your bottom line by showcasing your accomplishments — in digits. “To outweigh hidden biases, show something that resonates with the bottom line,” says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career coach and co-founder of Six-Figure Start. In other words, don’t say: “I’m a team player.” Instead, try: “My team has doubled its profits because of my project management skills.”
When it comes time to talk about a raise, ask how you’ll be evaluated: “If your boss says, ‘I don’t really know,’ push back and ask for specific measures,” advises Roberta Chinsky Matuson, job search mentor and author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around.
“You have to participate in high-profile projects,” says Matuson. “All too often, women settle for whatever they’re handed, when the risk-takers are the ones who are more highly compensated.” So, don’t be shy about raising your hand for projects that need a leader, and approach your boss with your own pet projects likely to benefit the company at large.
4. Do you know your worth?
If you go into a salary meeting with vague notions of how much more you should be making, you’ll walk out disappointed. “The best approach is to have data,” says Sarikas. She suggests using salary.com or glassdoor.com, two websites that share information about typical salaries in your field and at your specific level. Or, you can leverage your network by contacting friends, friends of friends, or former colleagues to ask them what they know about similar positions in their own companies. But, she cautions, “Don’t ask colleagues to share salary data. It’s not appropriate.”
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5. Have you contributed to the bottom line or saved the company money?
“The best time to ask for a raise is after you’ve completed a successful project or if you’ve increased the company’s revenue,” says Matuson. “Focus on how you are contributing to the organization, and have specific examples of how you’ve done that over the past year.”
6. What kind of hours do you work?
A factor that the study did not control for was hours worked, which plays a large role in women’s happiness, if not their take-home pay. One new study finds that women are unhappier than men with their work-life balance, and another indicates that women are likelier to sacrifice their careers to have time to achieve personal goals. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “Women may feel that they can’t ask for time off, flexibility or travel accommodations and a raise,” says Ceniza-Levine. “They fail to see that these are separate considerations, and while you may not want to ask for a laundry list in any one meeting, these things can be ticked off one or two at a time.”
It’s unfair but true: When it comes to starting a family, women bear the brunt of the career penalties. So, while in a perfect world you could sail back in after a couple of years off, it’s to your advantage to keep up with your industry, even from afar. “During your family leave, if you stay current with the news, software programs or whatever is related to your career, you can come back in with a higher salary than those who let that lag,” says Ceniza-Levine.
Also, ask to see whether there are possibilities outside of an either/or arrangement: “Maybe work one or two days a week so you maintain your salary level,” Matuson says. “If you are a valuable employee, the company will do whatever it can to accommodate your schedule.” You can also try to work from home or move to a consulting or freelancing position until you’re ready to get back into the game.
8. Are you in the $100,000+ range?
Kudos to you if you’re on a career path to (or already in) the big leagues. But be aware that the higher up in the hierarchy you rise, the more likely your salary is to diverge from male counterparts, according to this study. The differences become more and more apparent above $100,000, where women earn 87% of what men earn. When the stakes are this high, Matuson says: “Know your worth. Check with headhunters to see what the going rate is for the position you are in. Be prepared to change jobs and possibly relocate when a good opportunity comes your way.”
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, the gender gap does still exist (you can read more about that here), but remember that this frustrating gap is statistical, not a hard-and-fast rule. If you’re aware of the factors working against you, ask yourself the questions above. You can become the exception — with an exceptional salary.