I had four conversations this week with women of different ages, different experience levels in different fields with different problems, though all were related to what they are earning. It made me want to scream. Now, I’m thinking about the wage gap that exists and how women are, at least in part, responsible for it. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that most smart and educated people are at least aware of the data that supports the statement that women earn about .79 to every dollar earned by a man. Moreover, there are many reasons, both obvious and more nuanced, that women earn less than men. It is a problem, and I am not arguing against that.
However, some of the reasons are not so subtle. Some of them are because of the ways women themselves think, act and talk about money and getting paid.
Woman #1 is a talented professional with exceptional qualifications and amazing experience. She’s a rising star in a male-dominated field knocking it out of the park at every turn. When she called to tell me that an organization for whom she is doing some important work felt she was being grossly underpaid and wanted to give her more money, she apologized and offered to donate the extra money to our organization. I listened to her go on, first puzzled, then shocked, and finally peeved, and when she’d run out of steam, I asked her a question.
“When in the history of history do you think a man has ever called to ask me to find a way for him to not get paid and to donate his salary and apologize for being so much trouble? Cause every man I know would call me and tell me to find a way to get him that money.”
She is being paid. No worries. Nevertheless, I was left wondering if she was thinking this way, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Conversation #2 was even more puzzling. Upset about working almost round the clock for weeks or months at a time, the woman confided that the circumstances around her hire were a little less transparent than they might have been with a traditional search, and for that reason she was brought in at little more than minimum wage despite having a master’s degree, albeit with no professional experience, to avoid any appearances of impropriety. She said that baristas at Starbuck’s were earning more than she was. I said I was sorry to hear that. She’s not one of the minions that I mentor, and I felt no need to do anything but lend an ear.
But had I wanted to, I would have told her that under those circumstances, no human male would have accepted the goddamned job in the first place. Upon hearing that crap, he would have thanked them kindly for the offer, walked away clean and found a job where there were no murky hiring issues. He would have gotten himself paid a salary that would have launched him into a position for growth both financially and professionally without the weird attached. I would have pointed out that where you start can impact where you end. I would have told her that the money not being contributed to retirement matters and that 2% cost of living increases on nothing are still nothing. That low earning as you age is a great predictor for continued low earning as you continue to age, and she’s getting too old for this. That in her field, “gaining experience” is not going to make up for not earning now. Also, in professional situations where you’ve allowed resentment and other feelings to fester over a couple years, often the only way up is out. Instead, I said, “Oh, that’s a shame,” meant it, and kept on doing my own things, which do not involve dispensing career advice to people who do not explicitly ask for it.
Next, on the same day, was a friend who had agreed to do yet another volunteer job. She has a lot of great volunteer titles back on the Main Line. Executive Director of this and Director of that and Statewide Contact for that other thing. She wanted to know if I could help her find a grant so that maybe she could be paid, even a little, for the new one. Because she’s unemployed and has been for a long while, and her family is really struggling and needs a second paycheck and benefits desperately. I told her I might be able to help her write a proposal if she found some funding, but that no grant is just going to pay salary, and I pointed out that she would need approval from the board of directors to turn the position into a paid one. She had not talked to them. She did not want to bring that up now. It was too soon. NOOOOO. It’s too freaking late. I want to shake her.
I no longer think that these organizations want her involvement because she has skill or talent, which she certainly has. I think it’s because her of willingness to work over and above to the point where these activities are full on part-time, if not full-time, gigs for free. Please tell me the name of any man you know who’d commit ten or twenty or thirty hours of his time every week, on top of working part-time, raising three small kids, keeping a house together, volunteering at other organizations and job hunting? Tell me about this guy who’d agree to do one more thing let alone the level of organizational work required to direct the activities of many volunteers (who are notoriously hard to manage) and plan big and small events for not one penny. Not even perks. Not even free stuff. Just thanks, maybe. Tell me which man would not even ask for some money. It wouldn’t happen. But women? And this woman? Not only is her “No!” broken, so is her ability ask for a stipend. If they know they never have to pay you, they are never going to pay you.
The last was the one that gives me the most hope. She is one of the self-proclaimed minions. A smart, talented 30-year-old who listens. She got an offer for a job, and she said the money was $27K less than her last position that I’d helped her into a couple of years ago. She’s changing careers, so she expected to take a hit, but not that kind of hit. They were offering her $40K.
“Go back and tell them you won’t even begin to talk unless they can come close to $60K. Do not say ‘I’m sorry.’ You are not sorry. WE are not sorry that we wish to be compensated fairly. You are not starting out in the workplace. You have years of experience working hard in complicated positions and that is not worthless because it is not in this field. The transferable skills you bring with you have a ton of value. If they can only come up $10K on the money, ask for tuition to get a second master’s, an additional percentage of contribution to your retirement, extra vacation days and a six-month review for a salary bump, even it’s only going to be 2%.”
Did I mention she listens? She starting on September 5 at $55K with all of those perks but the extra retirement money. She understands that going in low means they can keep you low with small raises forever and ever. She gives me hope. However, she’s done some uncomfortable negotiating before that I talked her through, and she’s good about practicing the conversation beforehand and knows the right questions to ask. She makes a battle plan, and she’s much better than even she thinks she is.
The volunteer pointed out that I did not do much negotiating for this current job. It’s true. I didn’t. However, I didn’t think the offer was low, and I don’t think it had anything to do with gender. It’s within the industry norms, but the organization is also mired in state regulations and board policies that give them little room to sweeten any deals. I knew that going in. They were transparent, and I appreciated that. But this move was as much about an interesting professional opportunity as it was about the chance to move to a place where we wanted to live, to give me some space do things I love (like write), to give Murph a chance to relax and heal and to create a new home. Those were the fringes I was hunting, and they came with the package. That was not nothing. In addition, it’s not my only revenue stream.
Can it all go wrong? Sure. Remember when I tried to negotiate an offer in 2013 that was embarrassingly low at that military school? Instead of working with me, the former nun in charge got offended by the gall that I had to expect anything more and had the HR woman rescind the offer? I bounced back a month later with a much better position in a much better place, but everyone was stunned that the offer got pulled. I think it scared some of my female friends in terms of negotiating offers. I was surprised, but I didn’t want to work for a place that had that kind of mentality.
Ten months after that, when the chairman of the board at that same school called me and my team in as consultants, the HR woman had to prepare a contract agreeing to pay us $375/hour plus expenses to do exactly what that job would have had me doing for a whole lot less. I admit it; I smirked. That debacle cost them a lot more than it would have if they had agreed to let me work from home one day a week and put Murph in their summer camps for a discount, which I think is what I asked for because I knew they were broke and didn’t have cash on hand. I wasn’t willing to negotiate much with them when I was sitting on the other side of the table, even though the former nun had been fired and a (male) friend had taken over as president and asked me to cut them some slack. For them, it had been all about the Benjamins, and so it was for me. Karma can be a nasty mistress if you do not court her right.
I never sell us, or the magic we, a select group of women with diverse talents and skills, can do, short. The first time we agree to take less we start down a slippery slope, and we’ve all agreed it’s better to walk away than be under-compensated. We’re not advertising our services on Groupon or LivingSocial. We don’t even need to advertise anymore; people come to us, checkbooks in hand.
I don’t like to “blame the victims” in any situation. But please. Four women between the ages of 29 and 50 in one week hemming and hawing and apologizing about getting paid equitably for their time, efforts and talents? I’m sorry. We are past that, women. I’m fond of saying, “If they say no, you still have what you have and nothing changes. So why not ask? There’s nothing to lose.” Women earn less than men; we all know that. Don’t freaking help them.
Men ask. Men demand. I know men who demand way more than they’re worth, and they get it because they know how or who to ask and aren’t afraid to do it. Men are not “lucky” or “grateful” for a job offer like women. Men expect it; men feel like they deserve it. Of course, they got the offer. Why on earth would they not have been chosen? Hell, men apply for the jobs for which they’re not qualified and then demand to be compensated for them. There is something to be said for sharing some of that “you’re lucky to even get me” hutzpah. Where this attitude that we should take what’s offered and be grateful came from perplexes me.
Sure, we can all scream “down with the patriarchy” and all that other crap that made Bryn Mawr such a memorable experience for me. We can ban phallic foods, march, complain on social media, stamp our feet on Equal Pay Day and do economic impact studies that some talking head mentions on the news occasionally. However, at some point, we have to get over our own goddamned discomfort and stop acting like talking about money with the people for whom we work is somehow unladylike or unnatural. We are not asking for money that comes out of their pockets, and we are not asking for personal loans. We cannot blame the menfolk for not paying us what we’re worth if we don’t ask for it. We can not take jobs that pay us so much less to start that we will be behind our male peers for years before we catch up, if we ever do. We can take some ownership of the reasons why women earn less than men, and help each other get over our discomfort having financial discussions.
Maybe we should stop setting our own paychecks on fire and then blaming men for inventing matches?
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