The pay gap has been closing steadily since the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, but it isn’t happening quickly. In 2011 women still earned only 77 cents to every dollar a man made, according to the National Committee On Pay Equity. This means the wage gap has only narrowed by less than half a cent per year.
One major reason for the wage gap is that some women are being paid less than their male counterpart who hold equal positions. Today, as more women climb the ranks in their careers, they’re learning better negotiation skills to help them address this issue. But for young women confronting this problem at the outset of their careers, it’s hard to know exactly how to handle it.
That’s why we spoke to Wendi Lazar, employment lawyer and women’s councilor at Outten & Golden LLP to put together a step-by-step guide for what to do when you suspect you are being paid less than your male counterpart in an equal position.
Step 1: Know how to look at the problem.
Being treated unequally in the workplace doesn’t always mean you are being paid less. It could mean you are getting fewer opportunities with quality clients, that you’re not invited to golf outings where negotiations take place, or you’re not receiving travel opportunities which could increase the business you bring in. Because this issue is far from simplistic, you must prepare yourself to look at it from all angles, not just from a pay standpoint.
Step 2: Collect your evidence.
You need to make sure your suspicions are correct. Is your male counterpart definitely in the same position as you? Are there any extraordinary performance discrepancies between the two of you? Lazar says you need to collect evidence as diligently as possible before you even consider bringing it up. “Running to HR without the evidence is not going to be useful for most employees, and will in fact put them in an adversarial position,” she says.
Step 3: Just have a conversation.
Once you’ve got evidence, have an off-the-record conversation with your boss. This avoids escalating the volume on the situation while still bringing up your concerns. Lazar recommends saying, “I obviously don’t know what other people make, but there’s been a lot of conversation around the water cooler about what people earned and what their bonuses were. I just want to make sure that I’m being paid at the same level for the job I’m doing.”
Step 4: Ask where you stand.
Unfortunately, women tend to avoid questioning a new job’s salary, fearing they might risk losing the opportunity. It’s this same fear that makes women fail to ask where they stand in comparison to their co-workers. Lazar advises to ask, but to make sure the question isn’t phrased aggressively. She suggests beginning with, “I feel very comfortable about where I am in this process, and obviously you’re not at liberty to share other people’s bonuses, but I would like to know where I fit in in that pool. Am I on the high side? Am I on the low side?” A good manager should be in a position to answer those questions, even without providing specifics.
Step 5: Research what makes you different from your co-workers.
Now collect evidence in depth. Why is there a pay disparity between you and the man that may have graduated from the same college as you and entered the workforce in the same position, even at the same company? Lazar cautions not to assume that your male co-worker is being paid more than you because he is doing a better job. So analyze his performance, experience and background, and see if there is a real discrepancy between you two.
Step 6: If you’re confident in your evidence, it’s time to speak to HR.
If you are confident in your performance review and in the evidence you collected about your male counterpart, it is time to raise the question to HR. It can be as simple as stating these three points:
1. I did well in my performance review.
2. I am interested in getting a promotion.
3. These specific people received promotions, and I want to know what the process was to getting the promotions and why it didn’t happen for me.
Step 7: Keep a record of every conversation you have.
After you have a conversation either with your boss or with HR, make sure you memorialize it, preferably through an email, says Lazar. The email must strike a balance between aggressive and passive. Avoid any sort of aggressive tone, but make sure your language is not so passive that it doesn’t assert itself. The purpose of memorializing your complaints is to have a record in case something happens in the future—like getting fired—and your employer says that the issue was never brought up. You’ll have proof that it was.
Step 8: Talk to a lawyer, but don’t sue!
Once you’ve determined you are being discriminated against and you have evidence, you should seek legal council. But this doesn’t mean you should sue. Rather, all you should be doing at this point is figuring out what your rights are in the workplace and what strategy you should use to deal with it. You never want to take legal action right away because it will make everyone unhappy and could be detrimental to your career.
Step 9: Consider getting a coach.
Career coaching may be a good idea if you find a quality program or coach. “There are mentoring programs that are excellent within the bank industry, and more industries should have these programs for women so that you really get mentors that have been through this before and can counsel you,” says Lazar. This is an alternative to going to HR. You may also consider asking your company to pay for a coach, which challenges the assumption that the company wants you to stay and develop.
Step 10: Remember you can always bring the volume up, but not back down.
Lazar told us the line she always uses when counseling women: “You can always ratchet up, but you can’t ratchet down.”
Always remember to collect your evidence, do what’s necessary behind the scenes and act in a professional manner. This will help you protect yourself and keep the issue in a manageable state. After all, if your goal is to stay employed and ultimately gain equal pay, you must be sensitive, professional and appropriate in how you get there. It’s the only way to stay in the game.