For Me, the Pay Gap Is Personal
I won’t ever forget the overwhelming shame I felt the moment I found out that my former employer paid me less than a man who had the same job and less experience. I felt like I would die of embarrassment if this man — one of my best friends — found out that he made more than I did. And I felt trapped because I had no idea how to go about getting the wages I deserved.
I learned that I was being paid less purely by accident. We were out for drinks one night several years ago when my friend made an innocent comment about how he had received a 3 percent raise, but the raise was practically worthless because it only amounted to $1,000. I think I gave the appropriate response — some sort of sneer/laugh. But my brain was spinning, doing the math on what it must mean for his salary if that percentage gave him $1,000. Oh my God, he made more than I did.
Both of us were entry-level workers, but I had an extra year of experience. We sat across from each other every day, with a short partition separating us. I heard his every phone call, and he heard every bite I took. We produced the same amount of content and sat through similarly mind-numbing meetings. We were virtual equals until the day I found out I made less. Then that was ALL I could think about. I could barely look anyone at work in the eye because they all fell into two categories — either people who had chosen to pay me less or folks who could possibly find out that my employer apparently thought I was worth less than my male colleague.
To this day I have no idea if our company had a policy against sharing salaries — I didn’t know enough then to ask about such a thing. However, the culture there made it clear that salaries were not to be discussed. But if I couldn’t discuss what I had learned about my friend’s salary, how was I supposed to tell my boss that I deserved to make as much as my friend did?
I asked an older male friend — someone with hundreds of employees of his own — for advice. He told me to forget about how much my colleague was making and to worry about whether I was making what I deserved. That advice baffled me. How much did I deserve? And how could I possibly determine what I deserved when I had no context — no idea of a salary range for entry-level jobs in my field or what other colleagues were making?
Because of this advice and my fear of retaliation for speaking up about what I knew, I said nothing. I just worked harder. I asked for more responsibility, got it, and used that as leverage to negotiate a few thousand more dollars. I fought to be promoted, and once again I negotiated my way to more money using detailed records of my successes and responsibilities. I am proud of the way I negotiated to make my company pay me more. But I will never get back the wages I lost during the years I was paid less — wages that also dictated how much I saved for retirement.
Today, this injustice fuels my work at AAUW, where I champion pay equity and the very legislation that would assist people like me. I help make the case to Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would protect employees from retaliation if they share their wages or ask about employers’ wage practices. I encourage women to negotiate their salaries, and I’m proud to offer $tart $mart salary negotiation workshops as a resource. And I get to tell powerful stories through this blog.
From Equal Pay Day on April 9 through the Equal Pay Act 50th anniversary on June 10, I’ll share others’ stories of unfair pay and salary negotiation. If my story resonated with you, consider sharing it, or share your own — with me AND with your members of Congress. They’ve had the Paycheck Fairness Act in their hands for about 15 years, and I’m tired of them denying people like you and me the tools we need to ensure equal pay for equal work. Share your unequal pay story in the comments or e-mail it to me.
Update 07/19/2013: Today, we published a blog about AAUW member Cheryl Hughes who sent us her pay inequity story after reading our blog series on women who have struggled with the gender pay gap. We hope her story inspires you to share yours as well. Although not all entries will be used on the blog, we appreciate readers’ willingness to share their stories to help us make the case for fair pay to elected officials and in the media. Have a story to share? Fill out this form.
Learn more about the pay gap and join AAUW in the fight for fair pay.