I have a great job in a company I love. I was recently offered a promotion. Even though I thought the change in compensation didn’t reflect the increased responsibility, I was so happy to even be considered that I jumped at it. I now have four direct reports.
Here’s the problem: as the manager, I’m working on our budget (our fiscal year is April to April). I’ve just learned that some people who are doing the same job I just left are making a lot more than I made—and one of them (a man) is being paid virtually the same salary as I am.
I got so mad I considered quitting, but my partner convinced me to take a step back and think it through. It all seems so arbitrary and unfair that I can barely think straight. I keep thinking this happened because I am a woman and they know I am married to someone who has a high paying job. I feel taken advantage of.
What do you think of this?
I can understand how upset you are. From a neuroscience standpoint, when we perceive things to be unfair, all kinds of stress hormones are released—sometimes to the point where we behave irrationally. Your partner’s advice is smart: taking some time to calm down and look at the situation objectively is the best thing you can do right now.
Let me just start by saying I’m not an expert on this topic but I’m a woman who has been navigating the workplace forever. I’ve worked with many clients who have found themselves in the same situation as you. My first instinct is always to look for what you can control and what you can’t control. What you can control right now is your response to this situation. You can also look carefully at the part you may have played in allowing it to happen.
I think I would feel exactly the way you do right now if I hadn’t heard about the work of Sarah Laschever and Linda Babcock when their first book came out in 2007: Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change. The book has since been re-released as Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and The Gender Divide.
The impetus for the book came when one of the authors angrily asked her grad school professor why the guys got all the teaching assistant jobs, and he said “none of the women asked for them.” Thus began the journey of getting to the bottom of why most women end up making so much less than their male counterparts. It starts with the fact that most young women don’t negotiate their very first starting salary. From that moment, they are behind—sometimes to the tune of more than a million dollars over a career.
There are lots of cultural reasons for this, but probably the biggest one (in my opinion, anyway) is that women tend to do exactly what you described in your letter: “Even though I thought the change in compensation didn’t reflect the increased responsibility, I was so happy to even be considered that I jumped at it.” You had an emotional, humble response to being offered the job, which tends to be more common in women than in men. And you allowed your joy at being honored with the promotion to keep you from honoring your own intuition that the pay was not quite right. I would submit to you that you probably did the same thing with your first job, the job after that, and the job you just came from. The man who is now your direct report probably negotiated his starting salary and then negotiated every step of the way, which could be why he is now making so much more than you made for the same job. Was he offered more money because he was a man? You will probably never know, but I can tell you that most offers are based on salary requirements of the applicant and market norms.
I once said in this column that as a manager, my job was to acquire the best possible talent for the lowest possible price and that it wasn’t my job to remind job applicants that they could negotiate. The fact is that most organizations have salary bands that are informed by market norms—and if a manager can get someone willing to do the job for the lowest reasonable offer, more power to them. A colleague at my company read the column and got mad at me. She felt that my job as a manager was to make sure that salaries were fair. I did feel that all salaries among my staff were fair but I also wondered how I personally could be expected to be the arbiter of fairness. My point is that it is tricky. I also am led by the philosophy that you get what you negotiate in life. If you settle for the first offer, that is what you get.
I realize that this sounds very harsh—and it’s really not my intention to make you feel worse than you already feel. The fact remains that you got excited and leapt before you looked, and here you are, upset about it. The real question is what now?
First, I encourage you to get Babcock and Leschever’s book to understand the dynamics that keep women (especially) from negotiating in the first place. I am not saying discrimination doesn’t exist out there. It most certainly does. But women are culturally programmed to be rule followers, to grant authority to others when they don’t need to, and to wait to be given something instead of risking their own discomfort—and worse, the discomfort of others—to ask for it. These are the cultural norms that you will need to recognize and transcend to get what you think you deserve. Unfortunately, no one will do this for you.
Next, I encourage you to raise the issue with your manager. Explain that when you accepted the job your reason was clouded by excitement and you now realize your compensation does not feel equitable. Possibly you can negotiate a bonus based on performance, and a bigger than normal raise at your next performance review. I have worked with many employees over the years who felt their compensation wasn’t quite right. There are lots of ways to address the issue. But, again, you have to be the one to raise it. The key is to not blame anyone for the situation or act like a victim.
I would caution you against quitting out of anger. If you can’t get any traction, then maybe you could start looking. But if you love the job and the company, that isn’t anything to throw away in haste. At least give your employers a chance to hear you out and work with you to rectify the situation. If they won’t, bide your time, get your experience in the new position, and then go find something else. And if you do go elsewhere, negotiate your first offer. As many have said—I read this in an interview with Richard Branson decades ago and it rocked my world, though I still have to remind myself all the time—“If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”
I hope this incident helps you step up and fight for what is important to you in the future—and that you will always remember it as the moment when everything changed for you.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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