It was my very first week at my very first adult job. As I was going over the employee handbook with the head of human resources, she stopped to make a point of emphasis. “I want you to understand that you cannot, under any circumstances, discuss your compensation with any other employees,” she said. “You can’t ask them about what they make, and they can’t ask you what you make,” she continued. “Discussing this – whether at work or away from it – is grounds for termination.”
I was suitable terrified, and never, ever came close to talking about my wages with my coworkers. When I got to my second job, I wasn’t surprised to encounter an almost identical policy, and at first, I adhered to it… to the letter. At first, I thought this type of policy was designed to protect me. After all, I came to the job with a slew of big-name degrees and a big ego to match; I thought I was most likely being paid more than my other entry-level coworkers, and appreciated our employer putting the ix-nay on any discussions that even skirted the income question.
But the longer I spent on the job, the more I realized that this wasn’t a policy to protect me; rather, it was designed for one and one purpose only: to protect the company. Because by keeping coworkers in the dark about each others’ salaries by threatening them with termination – or worse – should they discuss their income, they effectively managed to keep all our salaries in the basement… particularly, I learned over the years, women like me.
My eye-opening wake-up call happened about nine months into my second job. A fellow TV producer – who was just ahead of me in terms of seniority (and experience, and qualifications, etc.) in my department took a job outside the news industry and left the station. But on his way out, he pulled me aside in the parking lot.
“What are you making?” he asked me pointedly. I stuttered a response, something about how we weren’t supposed to discuss our salaries with other employees. “Today was my last day,” he replied, “I’m off payroll as of 15 minutes ago. So tell me, what are they paying you?”
I don’t know what possessed me to break the code of silence, but I did. And I was shocked at what he said next.
“They’re underpaying you,” he told me. “I made $3,500 more than you my first year under contract here, and I had just as much experience as you do and less education.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” I managed.
“Because what they’re doing is wrong,” he responded, as if his motives should have been obvious. “And you’re good at your job, but if you keep getting paid like dirt, you’re going to burn out. I just want you to know what you’re up against the next time you’re negotiating your contract.”
Welcome to the world of the gender gap. It’s a world where women make substantially less than the average male worker doing the same job. But is this salary gap really as significant as it seems? It depends on which set of stats you’re looking at.
If you look at weekly median income – the gross wages workers take home every seven days – the gender gap is pretty appalling. Statistics show that the median income women take home each week is 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. When I looked at my income next to that of my male coworker’s – the guy who gave me that parking lot wake-up call – I realized that I was making about 85 cents for every dollar he earned. Apparently, I was doing well in terms of the salary gap battle of the sexes.
Things are even worse, if you can believe it, when we pull out to look at annual median income. Those statistics show that women earn, on average 77 cents for every dollar their male colleagues make. Why the 5-cent difference between the annual and weekly median income figures? The annual stats draw a clearer picture of the full compensation earned by employees over the course of the year (things like bonuses, which may only be given at year- or quarter-end); this is why many economists believe the annual income information is a more accurate depiction of just how bad the gender gap really is.
The sad fact is, when I covertly tried to use the information my former male colleague had given me at my next contract negotiation, I still didn’t get what I deserved. During the course of that contract – a two-year period during which I gave birth to my first child – I learned that two of my other male coworkers (one senior, one junior to me) were both making significantly more annually than me. It was a knife in the stomach; I left the company before I had a chance to negotiate for a third contract.
Have you ever been a victim of the gender wage gap? Did you ever try to fight it, either covertly or overtly? How did it end up for you?