This story is part of Fast Company‘s Gender Pay Gap package “Short Changed.” In honor of Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day of the year when women’s pay has finally matched the previous year’s pay for men, we are exploring elements of pay inequality though the personal stories of women across industries and career stages. Click here to read the whole series.
A few years ago, Jane* experienced for herself what the pay gap feels like.
She had been working in the medical technology industry since she graduated with a master’s degree in engineering from Johns Hopkins University. She was excited when she landed a senior role at a large, multinational, Seattle-based company, where she would be responsible for supervising a team that consisted of one woman and three men. She thought it would be a step forward for her career.
But it didn’t take long for that excitement and enthusiasm to dissipate. In her new position, Jane was able to see everybody’s compensation. That’s when it became clear that the men she was managing were being paid significantly more than she was. “I was very skeptical of any gender wage gap when I started working, but all of that changed when I joined this team,” says Jane. “I was in charge of the men’s professional development, I set monthly goals with them, I had weekly one-on-ones with them, I was on the line for their performance. And they were each making 20% to 30% more than I was.”
Asking for more
Jane wanted to give the company a chance to remedy the situation, so she brought up the issue with the HR department, hoping it would begin the process of helping her get a pay raise. At the meeting, she also highlighted the fact that the female employee on her team was also being paid less than her male counterparts, even though she had more education and relevant experience than they did. This suggested a systemic pattern of pay discrepancy based on gender.
To her surprise, Jane says the HR department, which was made up entirely of women, seemed to be fully aware of the situation and did not seem to think it was a problem. “They said that the other woman on my team and myself were hired earlier, and the company wasn’t as competitive with pay at that time,” she says. “It seemed like it was institutionally approved because they knew it was a problem. They kept saying they would fix it or make it better. They never did.”
In other words, the HR team made the case that the pay gap was a glitch because the company suddenly decided to offer more competitive salaries after the women on her team joined, but before the men joined. Jane thought this reasoning was a little strange, but was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since they promised to give her a raise. She repeatedly followed up with HR. She never received the salary increase.
Then, a year into the job, Jane went to her boss to explain that one of the male subordinates was not performing well, and it was negatively impacting the clients. She says her bosses and the HR department defended him, saying he was new at the job and needed time to acclimate. Jane argued that his bonus should be docked, but she says all of her superiors fought vociferously to make sure this didn’t happen.
Jane still doesn’t fully understand why the company was so willing to support the male employees, but not the female ones. She has some theories. For one thing, she believes her immediate manager had old-fashioned ideas about women’s role in the workplace, which may have led him to undervalue women’s contributions. “When I first started working, he said, “I know you’re a newlywed. I don’t want you to come back in six months and say that your husband is complaining that you’re traveling too much.”
After two years with the company, Jane took a job in a different firm. Neither she, nor the woman on her team, ever received a raise, so it became clear to her that nothing was going to change if she stayed on and kept pushing her superiors to treat her fairly. But before she left, the company made her sign a non-disparagement agreement that banned her from working at any other branches of the company, or any of its many subsidiaries. This was not standard for all employees who left. She believed she was forced to sign this restrictive contract because she was so vocal in her time there. “It was an ugly end to an ugly couple of years,” she says.
More Stories in Fast Company‘s Pay Gap Series, “Short Changed”
- Why women are still making so much less than men
- I’ve been a nurse for 20 years. The male nurses I work with have a different pay track
- I had 15 years of professional experience, but no one cared when I became a mom
- I have to delay my retirement because my male coworkers were paid more
Jane was much happier at her new job. For one thing, she had a much better idea of what a reasonable pay scale looked like for her particular kind of position in her industry. In her time doing battle with the HR department at her former company, she had done a lot of research about what a fair salary would look like, and she knew she was being fairly compensated.
A widespread problem
Unfortunately, Jane’s experience of discovering she was underpaid is pretty common. Women who work full-time earn around 80¢ for every dollar earned by a man, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (and it’s even less for women of color).
Often, analysts talk about how differences in pay can be attributed to the fact that women are overrepresented in lower-paying industries, like teaching and childcare. Or they might cite the fact that women are more likely to leave the workplace when they have children, before they can rise to the highest-paying leadership roles.
But there’s also a more direct reason that the pay gap exists. Employers often offer women lower salaries than their male counterparts. The job platform Hired found that women who apply for technology jobs are offered lower salaries than men for the same role 60% of the time. On average they’re offered 3% less, but some firms offer up to 50% less. With such big differentials in salary, it’s no surprise that women like Jane are paid less than the men they are supervising.
Since Jane was in a more senior role, she was able to see how her own salary stacked up with that of her male subordinates. But often, companies don’t offer employees much transparency into the pay scale, so women simply have no idea they are being underpaid.
Allison Esposito Medina worked at tech companies like Foursquare and Google before leaving two years ago to launch the the organization Tech Ladies, which supports women in the tech sector. She says that early in their careers, many women are often just happy to be employed and earning what they believe is a high salary. “I think employers prey on that,” she says. “During the negotiation process, they throw out a number that is $20,000 or $30,000 less than the number they would even start at with a man. But for many women, that figure is so much more than she was making at her last job, so she doesn’t know exactly how much money is floating about.”
But when they find out, it can be very demoralizing. “You feel like your work and contributions are not valued,” says Jane. “Here I was, killing myself, working 18-hour days. And they were casually paying a man more than I was.”
And the big question is what to do next. Jane went to her superiors to question the pay discrepancies. It did not improve the situation, but it also did not make it worse. That is not always the case. Take what happened to Medina, when she was working at a well-funded startup. Thanks to a company-wide reorganization, Medina’s job responsibilities increased overnight, so she went to her male boss to ask for a raise. Her boss, who seemed so empathetic and progressive until that point, seemed to turn against her. “My boss told me to my face, ‘You haven’t even been here for a year, how dare you ask that?'” says Medina. “Asking for more money can sour your relationship with people. My relationship with that boss never recovered, so I eventually just left.”
Before Jane left the company, a woman on her team who made less than everyone else left. She was one of Jane’s best team members, and Jane wanted her to stay. She even asked the company whether she could give her employee part of her own bonus in an attempt to prevent her from leaving. But the HR department said that there was no official way to do that. As to be expected, the woman took a job at a competing company that doubled her salary. “She was so blown away by the offer from the other company that there was nothing we could do to keep her,” Jane says.
* “Jane” requested a pseudonym for fear of backlash from her current employer.