This story is part of Fast Company’s Gender Pay Gap package “Short Changed.” In honor of Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day that women have to work for free to match men’s earnings, we are exploring elements of pay inequality though the personal stories of women across industries and career stages who experience it every day. Click here to read the whole series.
Jenny* first considered the possibility that she was underpaid because of her gender after overhearing her male coworkers discuss salaries at the rural manufacturing plant where she had been working for a few years. Now in her late 50s, after over 20 years at her job, she and her husband are approaching retirement age. Here, she reflects on what she gained–and what she failed to achieve–in trying to resolve her pay issues. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s. A lot of my thinking was formed in those years. Our teachers taught us: This is America, everyone is equal, and everyone has a chance. Your race and gender don’t matter. Everything is based on your capabilities and your willingness to learn and work. So I worked hard; I planned to go to college and get a good job. I never hesitated to take math and science classes and always made really good grades. I was in the first computer programming class offered at my school.
I heard same message of equality on TV–things like The Cosby Show, Maude, all those silly shows that we watched. It just seemed like pay discrimination, women versus men, didn’t exist anymore. Good grief, we’ve had the right to vote since 1920! But I am no longer so naïve.
I have now worked for the same company for a little over 20 years. When I was hired, I started as a union employee working a 12-hour rotating shift. It was a foot in the door. As a union employee, pay transparency is obvious. There is a contract book and everyone knows what every position gets paid. About two years in, I took a day shift job as a salaried employee. At the time, it never even crossed my mind that pay gaps still existed. I knew it was against the law, and I thought that people followed the law, especially big corporations.
One day at work, not long after accepting the salaried job, I was in the lunch room when a conversation took place about a new salaried position. Someone mentioned how much the pay would be, and that’s when I realized there might be a discrepancy between my pay and that of men working in similar jobs. Within half an hour of the conversation, a member of the department management team was in my office telling me that discussions regarding pay were not allowed; doing so could result in losing my job. So I kept my suspicious to myself, even though it sounded like I should be making about 20% more.
I wanted and needed my job. It’s rural America–good jobs are hard to come by.
Several years later, the company hired a man into a role similar to mine. He was only here for a year, and after he left, I texted him: How much did you make? He gladly told me. It was, as I had suspected, 20% a year more than me. And I had trained him! I had done all my work and more.
More From Fast Company’s Gender Pay Gap Series “Short Changed”
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Eventually, I had to hire someone to help me resolve the pay issue. I didn’t really want to fight the battle just for me. I wanted to try to make a change for other women coming after me, especially my granddaughter.
I was advised on what to say to my manager. I followed the advice, but got nowhere. One manager laughed at me, saying “This is the real world.” Finally I filed a certified letter, thinking that within a week it would be over. It took two more years. The whole experience took a terrible toll on my mental health, physical health, emotional health. I live in a small town, and I couldn’t tell anyone about it.
In the end, I’m not sure it was worth it. The company had the resources to fight forever, and I didn’t. To a degree I feel like I gave up. Nobody got hurt in this thing except for me. And I’m not allowed to say exactly how it was resolved.
My husband also works for a manufacturing company. He’s worked longer, and he’s been union the whole time. He was told he would be able to retire at age 56 with full benefits. He’d been looking forward to turning 56 ever since. And then the company was acquired, and they took that away. So then we were hoping he would be able to retire at 60. But in this most recent contract, they took retiree insurance away. Now all the plans that we made are changing. If they had been paying me what they should have been paying me all along, it would be a lot easier for me to retire, and for our family to be financially secure.
I worked the entire time I was dealing with my pay issue and I’m still working. I’ve worked very hard the whole time I’ve been employed. Before that, I worked hard to get a degree. I didn’t expect anything to be handed to me. But I did expect equal pay for equal work.
Now I’m tired. I don’t really have the fight in me now that I had when I was younger. On top of everything else, I shouldn’t have to worry about equal pay. The way things are looking, I’ll probably be working at least an extra seven years. That’s taking into account the pay gap and the reduction of benefits. They keep moving the target; they keep dangling it in front of you.
Since I work at a global company, there’s tons of compliance and ethics training. None of it seems to mean anything. It’s like the system has been designed by and for the big rich guys at the top. Meanwhile, the rest of us have to do way more with less.
*Names and select details have been changed in order to protect anonymity.