It’s Equal Pay Day: How Are You Going to Get Yours?

Today is Equal Pay Day. Right now women workers earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar paid to men (this is according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group working for equal pay and benefits in the workplace). So in addition to it being Tax Day, today also marks the number of extra days in 2012 that an average woman needed to work to earn as much as a man did just working in 2011.

It’s tempting to just want to complain. But instead of kvetching and working ourselves into a lather about companies taking advantage of women, we can actually do something about it by owning the situation and not taking it anymore.

The Goodyear Tires employee Lilly Ledbetter did, after she got an anonymous note telling her that her salary was significantly lower than that of male peers doing the same work. Her efforts to correct this disparity ultimately led to President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

I learned my own lesson about standing up for yourself early in my career. I was working at a highly visible job in a high-performance area at an investment bank. One day I got a tipoff that I was earning far less than my peers: a colleague told me what he was earning. He wanted me to know because HE thought it wasn’t fair. Wanting the inside skinny, I said, “Wow — I’m earning 20% less than you. How did you get such a great base?” His reply: “I asked.”

Ouch. My lack of an income increase was 100% my fault.

And that’s the difference between guys and gals. Men will ask for the promotion and the raise. Women will sit back and assume people will notice the hard work they’re putting in and pay them for it. Ladies, If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ever.

As someone who has literally interviewed thousands of people, I can tell you that the same timidity applies to the job hunt. When interviewing, it’s been my experience that far more men than women will use “I” when referring to things they’ve led.  Women, on the other hand, are more likely to say “we” when describing their accomplishments.

Using “we”-speak makes an otherwise talented person seem weaker, more passive. Companies aren’t going to be hiring the team, they are hiring you — and you alone. Sure, you want to look like a team player, but you should choose your words carefully so that you also come across as a leader.

Another key difference I’ve observed is that many women tend to avoid the confrontation of pushing back on starting salary or at review time, while men are more likely to, well, maybe not embrace the negotiation, but at least see it as a necessary process of asking for (and often getting) what they want.

Fear of negotiation will always hold you back from making the big bucks. Instead, learn to relish making a deal — and get good at it. Moreover, jobs being what they are these days, you’re going to need to negotiate more often on your behalf than you ever have before. The fastest way to gain strength in your negotiation is to understand the market value for your role and know what number you want.

And then, practice, practice, practice negotiating — with people you trust (this is the part everyone skips). They payoff will be huge in terms of percentage gains in your base salary, bonus, vacation time, and other perks that affect work/life balance.

Now, please don’t get the idea that I’m blaming the victim.  There are definitely systemic injustices in the American workplace, and unequal pay is one of them.  As women, we all deserve equal pay, but proving that you’re doing equal work is also your job.  This is especially true in professional or managerial positions, where no two people are doing exactly the same job, making comparisons difficult.  Make sure to keep track of your accomplishments and make sure your hard work gets noticed throughout the year. This way, asking for what you deserve won’t seem like an uphill battle, it’ll feel natural. Now get crackin’.

Want to improve your salary negotiation skills? Jim Hopkinson, our Salary Negotiation Coach, will come to your rescue. Hire him for an hour of mock-negotiation or to help you figure out what salary you should be asking for.

About this Gun

Allison Hemming

Allison Hemming

is Top Gun at The Hired Guns and the founder of The Hired Guns Academy. A noted career authority, Allison has helped thousands of individuals assume leadership roles in organizations through effective career and personal brand management. Follow @TheHiredGuns.