The Paying Field: It Starts Out Level and Then….

April 30, 2019

This past April, the U.S. marked what I find to be a continually frustrating date. It’s called Equal Pay Day, and—as explained by the National Committee on Pay Equity—it’s the day that designates “how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.” I came into the workforce far ahead of millennials. Back then, the pay gap between men and women was often explained to me early on in terms of catching up. “Women haven’t been in the workforce for too long. They are catching up to the men.”

With all the catching up women have done in every field imaginable, that logic to me now seems wildly outdated. I can’t imagine using those words to a millennial woman today…we still have to catch up. In fact, I can’t imagine using those words to anyone today. When a woman graduates college today as a Software Engineer or Developer, the playing field and the pay field are equal. She will be paid by her new employer the same salary as they will pay a male new grad coming onto the job. The gap doesn’t start right out of the gate the way it once used to. Instead it’s a gradual build. As the ranks rise, the pay gap grows. We see it every day.

To me “the catch up” part of the story is not about catching up to men in terms of gaining access to education or skill development. Instead, catching up means closing the pay gap and, in my mind, there are three ways to get us there faster: by rethinking salary negotiation, grabbing leadership opportunities, and through budget reconciliation.

Rethinking Salary Negotiation

I have been in management for two decades and on both sides of numerous salary negotiations. Here is a fact about salary negotiations: on the whole men negotiate for more and with greater boldness than women. I have had leaders I battled with for my own pay tell me later that I didn’t drive a hard enough bargain. I have seen male employees ask for 30% and 40% raises as their female colleagues with the same performance records say thank you for 3-5% raises.

To me, the real question is not “why aren’t women negotiating better?” It’s why are we making negotiation a major factor in determining remuneration? In the marketplace, businesses know how to set a price people will pay for goods and services. The same general principles should apply to setting solid salary ranges and the factors that push them to the higher or the lower end, such as performance, years on the job, etc. It works in government where salary ranges are fixed, aligned with specific merit factors and fully transparent, which is also essential. If businesses are transparent about salary ranges and exactly what affects them, negotiations can center on perks, such as flexible scheduling or vacation time, and salary gaps becomes much easier to identify and close.

While I know this is not a change that will happen everywhere or immediately, I do have one powerful piece of advice for every woman out there. Ask for more. In a negotiation, you start by overshooting your target and working back. Your employer is prepared to work you down. Are you prepared to push for more? Put data and results on your side. Come in with your performance record and achievements. Arm yourself with salary data and what you know about the company’s pay practices. Never be afraid to make a good case for yourself. No one knows your work better than you.

Grabbing Leadership Opportunities

Leaders get paid more and those who are seen as taking on leadership-like work will be seen as more valuable. Look for opportunities to lead projects, own a new opportunity, mentor, hold the microphone, give the presentation, and build the solution. If your business is not giving you opportunities to lead, make it known you are interested. Ask about management training and mentors. If you see male colleagues offered leadership roles and you aren’t sure why you weren’t given the same chance, ask the question. Don’t wait. Perhaps it was an innocent oversight and you gain a new opportunity? Perhaps you have some skill gaps to refine. Either way you win by getting a chance to grow—in skills, in opportunity or maybe in both.

Here is one answer to be wary of: “not now.” If you continually hear that you are “not ready” for more responsibility but you see others being promoted around you with similar skills and experience, you may have reached a dead end in that organization. Don’t lose productive, dynamic years waiting until someone else thinks you’re ready for more challenge and responsibility. Always be in the driver’s seat when it comes to your career and know when to start looking for another position where you can grow and lead.

Budget Reconciliation

My last bit of input on catching up and closing the gap is to those of us who manage budgets and have leadership pull. Salaries are a big part of budgets. When you have the chance to review salaries in budgeting processes and identify gender-based discrepancies, say something and try to do something. If you see that male developers or account executives are consistently paid higher, find out why and reconcile it wherever you can. What better way could there be to win loyalty from female talent (and at a time when we know diversity at all levels strengthens a business)?

For the gap to close, we all have to help pull it shut. We can do it in the way we negotiate for ourselves. We can do it in the way we give and seek opportunities. And we can do it by taking the chances we have to leverage our position to make the paying field a level playing field. Let’s get to work.