Learn Some Conversation Starters
When it comes to compensation, many people think there’s safety in silence: Don’t ask anyone what they earn, and don’t discuss your own paycheck. But the reality is that staying quiet actually reinforces pay inequality.
That’s why AAUW, a leader in the fight for fair pay, is creating safe opportunities for workers to start talking. On October 5, 2021, we convened a group of professional women—and an expert panel—for a candid conversation about how to create workplaces that make fair pay a reality. This was the first in a three-part series, Equal Pay Every Day, focused on how New York City-based employers can help to close the gender and racial pay gaps.
Here’s what the panelists had to say about getting the compensation conversation going with various people, including:
Managers and Business Owners. Bringing evidence of unfair pay to a boss may feel scary, but addressing such concerns is part of their job. In some cases, managers may not even be aware that internal pay inequality exists.
Other times, they maintain the status quo because they believe doing so is in their interest—as long as no one calls them out on it. “I think any business owner, even if they’re well intentioned, [will] take an opportunity to save money,” said Angela DeGeorge, an architectural designer at Dameron Architecture PLLC, New York, N.Y., and 2017-18 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow. Yet “as soon as [pay inequity] is mentioned, I find that business owners do correct it,” DeGeorge said.
Once you’ve discovered examples of unfair compensation, banding together with other employees can be a smart way to find strength—and security—in numbers, according to Helen S. Jarrett, mobilization coordinator for the union CWA (Communications Workers of America) Local 1180 in New York. That’s what Jarrett and five colleagues did in a previous job. “The boss said he was so appreciative that we came in and approached him first rather than going to the union,” she said.
Unions. Speaking of unions, they can be strong forces for equity if employers fail to act after being made aware of pay discrimination. For example, CWA Local 1180 won a lawsuit against the City of New York on behalf of a group of employees—most of whom were women and people of color—who were paid substantially less than white men for years.
It was a major win for equity in New York, with $15 million dollars awarded to 2,000 individuals, Jarrett said. For Rosario “Rosie” Roman, the union’s administrative manager, that meant she received a 25% increase in pay. “It’s been life-changing,” Roman said. And none of this could have happened if employees stayed quiet.
Other Women. “Women tend to have much more ‘imposter syndrome’ than men,” DeGeorge said. That’s why having a network of women to cheer you on can be helpful. “When it’s time to have an annual review, we all call each other and we try to support each other,” she said. “Everyone has those feelings of anxiety and nervousness … even though I know they are so talented and so worth it … .”
Asking colleagues what they earn is a good way to identify patterns of unfair pay, but be careful about talking to co-workers. First, make sure you’re complying with state and local laws, which could include prohibitions on discussing compensation with other employees.
Also, realize that some people may feel skittish about sharing. If you do ask, DeGeorge suggests language that frames the issue in broad—rather than personal—terms: “In the spirit of fair pay and transparency, would you feel comfortable sharing your salary?”
Yourself. After DeGeorge lost a job during the pandemic, she started working as a freelance designer and was unsure about how much to charge. “It was a challenge to learn to be fair to myself,” she said. “I didn’t like grappling with that question, but I had to do it.”
In addition to researching the market, women may need to do some soul-searching to feel confident asking for what they deserve. Tools like AAUW’s Work Smart Online can help women to craft their requests professionally and develop value statements.
“I can advocate for my clients. I will fight for them,” Roman said. “I find it more difficult to speak up for myself.” Ultimately, however, she did when it counted most. “I stepped forward out of my comfort level to say ‘I’m worth it.’”
2017-18 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow and architectural designer at Dameron Architecture PLLC, New York, N.Y.
Helen S. Jarrett
Mobilization coordinator and executive board member, CWA (Communications Workers of America) Local 1180, New York, N.Y.
Rosario “Rosie” Roman
Administrative manager level II, CWA Local 1180, New York, N.Y.