Last week in the thread for my Best Boss Ever post commenter Plum-Pie noted that she and her sister had been discussing the issue of women in the workplace, and: “Basically, we concluded, that as women are socialised to be risk averse and ‘grateful’ (blech!) and not to ask for things unless they are 100% sure they deserve them.” I had actually been working on this post when she made that comment, but it was great confirmation of what I’d been trying to say (thanks, Plum-Pie!)
I work in a business where two people can have the same title but considerable spread between their salaries (say, $60,000 vs. $100,000). Some of the spread has to do with experience, but much of it has to do with moving around. If you change companies every four years or so, you’ll get around a 30% raise each time, which all piles up quite nicely. If, however, you remain loyal to a company, as I did, you’re likely to get small incremental raises–5-8%–over the years, which simply don’t add up to a big payoff.
This was the case at my last job, where I started out as a 21 year old assistant. Eight years later I’d been promoted several times and had done several deals that brought my employers a LOT of money, enough that I was given a special “Employee Excellence” Award with the president of the company toasting me in a prepared speech.
Problem was, all that excellence wasn’t doing jack shit for my bank account.
I should point out here that I work in a female-dominated business, and both the president of the company and my direct boss were women. So were most of my colleagues. This wasn’t a case of out-and-out gender pay disparity. But gender definitely played into it.
You see, as Plum-Pie and her sister rightly noted, women are taught to be modest and risk-averse. We’re not supposed to toot our own horns or stride boldly into the boss’s office and demand a raise, even if we earned it. Instead, we’re supposed to be grateful for what we get, and not to overreach. So if the boss treats us well–as my bosses did–we think we should be pleased about it, even if we’re not making good money. Men would see the glass as half empty: Hey, I like this place but they’re not paying me what I’m worth! Women see it as half full: I’m not making as much as I could, but it’s okay because I like working here.
That was me, for a long time. But eventually, I started waking up to the fact that I was leaving money on the table, and if my salary didn’t go up, I’d be leaving money on the table for the rest of my life.
You see, every salary you get is based on the one before. If you have a dismal salary history–like I did–it could take you years, if not decades, to catch up. I eventually realized that I could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of my career if I stayed at the company that was underpaying me. That missing money could be a lost house, a lost college education for my children, or lost retirement funds.
That knowledge was ultimately what shook me out of my complacency. I had to change things–I needed to get paid what I was worth, or I might establish a precedent that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I started by putting together a P&L of all the projects I’d worked on, showing how much money they’d made. I did some research in industry publications and on-line (I recommend glassdoor.com for this) and found out what the typical base pay for my position was. I requested a promotion and a raise that would bring me in line with both the base salary I should have been earning, and with what my colleagues were earning (most of them had many more years experience than I did, so I requested a little less based on that). I did a write-up of all this and gave it to my boss at my next evaluation. I was polite and respectful, but firm. This needed to happen, I told them. It was a reasonable request, based entirely on research and solid numbers.
So now I’m going to talk about those numbers. Although I don’t use my real name on this website, I am not hiding behind my anonymity in this case. Believe me, I would talk about my salary in public if we were sitting in a room together because I believe very strongly that the reluctance to discuss money is a big part of the reason women get screwed in the workplace. Women are strongly discouraged from thinking of their work in terms of cold, hard cash. Talking about money is tacky, we’re told, and besides, there are all sorts of intangibles–like quality of life, and getting along with your managers and colleagues–that matter more. I believe those things are important, of course, and they do factor into any decision I make about my job.
But the truth is that numbers matter. They certainly matter to your employer. I guarantee your bosses know exactly what you make and what your work is worth, even if you don’t discuss it. The first step to not getting screwed is to know what your skills are worth on the open market. To do that, you have to reduce the value of your work to a dollar figure. If this makes you uncomfortable, get over it. This is your financial security we’re talking about.
For the sake of illustration–and because I ain’t ‘shamed to talk about money–here is an example. It’s my own salary history:
My starting salary was $20,000, a flat rate paid to all entry-level employees at my company. (I have a B.A. from a top-tier public university and professional certification from an Ivy League school.)
At the end of four years, having been promoted twice, I was making $35,000. The average industry salary for someone with my responsibilities was a little higher– about $38,000-40,000. Already, I was falling behind.
At the end of eight years, having been promoted once more, and having made the company significant profits by bringing in as much business as someone at the senior level (a promotion away). I was only making $50,000. The mean pay for my job title started at $55,000, according to industry publications, but I’d been in the job for three years already. I should have been making at least $60,000. I was earning about 20% less than I should have.
Also: had the company hired someone from outside with a track record like mine, they would have had to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000-$80,000.
Once I crunched the numbers, I realized I needed to make at least $70,000 a year to bring my salary in line with the market value of my work.
Even my colleagues who’d brought in less money were making 20-30% more than me, mainly because they had been hired from outside. I, on the other hand, was young, home-grown, and hadn’t had a big jump in salary by switching companies. I’d paid what I call the Loyalty Penalty.
Why did I pay it? Because I was ignorant of my real value to the company, and had gotten complacent because liked my job (particularly working for the best female boss ever). My employers certainly took advantage of both things, giving me promotions without raises, or piddly single-digit raises. The company saved money by underpaying me, and they thought it was a win-win for them. For years, I proved them right.
My bid for a promotion and a raise was favorably received, and I was told that I would get a 15% raise, for starters, and a promotion that would go into effect in the next fiscal quarter. But when that quarter rolled around, I noticed that my paycheck didn’t change. There was no discussion of a forthcoming promotion. There was nothing. Despite the promises, the appointed time rolled around and…crickets. That same month, my excellent boss went on maternity leave, which meant that if this issue was going to be tackled, it wouldn’t be tackled for at least three months, at which point I would probably be put off until the following quarter–six months away. I was facing another half a year of being underpaid.
I was livid about the broken promises. But in reality, my employers were doing me a favor, because anger is a great motivator, and it gave me the kick in the ass I needed. I called around and found out who was hiring. I cold-called the head of a rival company and met him for breakfast three days later. That was a Monday. I met his deputy on Tuesday. I was up front with both of them: I wanted $70,000 a year, and if they offered it to me, I would accept it and not try to negotiate a better deal with my current employer (which is typical in my industry–people often try to get employers into bidding wars, which can be very risky). On Wednesday they offered me a job with a promotion and the $70,000 a year I wanted. I accepted immediately.
I gave notice to my boss’s boss, a guy I had known for eight years and never particularly liked, and who I suspected was part of why I had been stymied in getting the promised raise. I simply announced, “I’ve been offered a job elsewhere and I’ve accepted. I can give you three weeks’ notice.”
He looked stunned, as though it had never occurred to him that someone who’d been at one place for eight years and been underpaid for most of them might actually look for another job.
“You don’t want a counter-offer?” he asked.
“No.” I told him, “I was promised a raise and a promotion this quarter and I didn’t get it, so I found a job with better pay.”
About an hour later I was called into the office of the Boss Lady, the head of our entire division. I’d always gotten along well with her, and she was also the ultimate numbers person, so she undoubtedly knew why I was leaving. The moment I sat down, she leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, “Just tell me it’s not about the money.”
I was stunned. I wanted to yell “Of course it’s about the money, you moron!”
But I was determined to get out of there without burning bridges–it’s a small world. She’d just told me what she wanted to hear, so I let her hear it.
“No, it’s about the opportunity,” I answered. Which was true–it was about the opportunity to finally make the money I deserved. I then made some noises about how I’d had a good eight years, and thanks for all the support, but I needed to move on.
I don’t think she believed it, but I got out of there in one piece and that was all that mattered.
I’ve been at my new job for four years. I now make $93,000 a year. I’m finally exactly where I should be on the pay scale, and I’m very happy with my boss and working environment too.
My point here, fellow harpies, is that it’s very easy to look at that glass half full and let yourself be underpaid. It’s much easier to say “Well, at least I have a job…” or “It’s not much money, but I like it…” The Patriarchy has conditioned women not to talk about money or deliver ultimatums, or to advocate loudly for ourselves (and, if absolutely necessary, be a bitch when you aren’t getting what you deserve). The pressure can be so subtle that you don’t notice it but it’s persistant, and it takes effort to shake off that conditioning. But if this is happening to you, please, please go for yours. No one else will do it for you, and your future as well as your present depends on it.