Battling the Gender Gap

by Elizabeth on July 1, 2013 · 3 comments

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?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 krantcents July 1, 2013 at 3:39 pm

You can attribute it to gender gap, but it is more a result of poor negotiating. When they gave you an offer, were you aware of what other stations paid similar people? If you did , did you use it to negotiate a higher salary? If not it is your fault not theirs. We cannot trust employers to pay what is right! There are very few of those companies out there.

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2 Newlyweds on a Budget July 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm

While I do agree that women’s poor negotiating skills can definitely play a part, it still doesn’t make it right. She did write that she tried to negotiate a higher salary knowing the info the co-worker had supplied, and they still didn’t offer her what she wanted.
I am lucky that at my current company, because we are a public agency, all our salaries are made public. While our names aren’t attached, it’s very easy to figure out who makes what. I think all companies should implement this type of policy because it really helps keep things transparent.

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3 Em July 2, 2013 at 5:07 am

Certainly this is an issue. I think it should be illegal for a company to ban talking about salary. It can only lead to discrimination and unfair treatment. If you earn so much money that you need protection from your company to ensure no one ever finds out, I say you are probably earning too much money.

I always fought for more money. My first job out of uni was a pittance wage but I accepted it, I was ready to climb the ladder. I was employed by a woman who would comment on the clothes I wore and the tidiness of my hair – salary was never going to be negotiated.

The next job was funny – I was given a couple of grand more than the last job and I was so pleased. I was the only female in a group of 10 new staff who were all being trained up with me for a few weeks. One day we had a frank conversaion about salary – and the guys all found I was on 1000 MORE than they were. They were pretty upset about this, and claimed it was BECAUSE I was female that this had happened, to ‘help their demographics’. Maybe I was just good, and they wanted me. Who knows!

A few years later I moved to London, and I remember saying I won’t move for less than £25k. Ha ha ha – haha. I got a job for £18k in the city, and learned pretty soon that was quite normal. It was a tech role, and I’m pleased to say I had regular raises over the years. I started to feel quite strongly about being open about salaries when I learned a guy who had far better skills than me, who had worked there two years longer than me, was still on around £13k (and we worked long hours, with unpaid overtime). At this point I was on £25k because I had demanded it – and received it reluctantly (small business). HE thought his wage was great, and before I left I explained to him what he was actually worth. He was from Pakistan, and I feel he was being quite obviously discrimated against because he didn’t know any better – because it’s not the done thing to discuss salary. It disgusted me, and I have made it a point to openly discuss it at every job since, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Of course I’ve never had a contract that says I can’t!

Now I work in public sector and things are much more transparent. They even do an equality report every year demonstrating certain gaps – not only in pay, but in seniority and exec level staff – and this covers minorities, women and disabled people too.

I had a friend who was offered a job and asked what salary she wanted. How on earth do you pick, when nobody talks about it? Especially if it’s a unique job, and you have unique experience. I mean there is a case to say you’re worth £100k, another case to say £25k is more appropriate. ANOTHER friend, while at interview, asked for £36k for an engineering role as he thought that was most likely what he would get. They said “How about £40k?” – LOL. I have no idea why they did that, but well done them. I wonder if they would have done that if he were a woman, or the wrong colour, of course.

It’s a tricky issue. Business needs to be competitive. I have interviewed people and sometimes they were just annoying, so it was hard to give them a fair go. I am all for proper robust interviewing and tests to ensure everyone gets a fair and equal chance. The public sector is one place that does this very well indeed. It will never happen in the private sector – the government would lose way too many ‘donations’ from owners of private companies !!

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