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So You’re Making Less Than a Man—Now What?

7 minute read

You’re no doubt aware that, statistically speaking, you probably make less than your male peers. But knowing that in theory and finding out that your cubicle mate’s salary is $20,000 higher than yours are entirely different matters.

“Americans are very reticent about their earnings,” says Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). “I think I know more about people’s sex lives than I know about their salaries.”

Standard workplace policies practically mandate this: A survey from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 60% of private-sector workers were either prohibited from or strongly discouraged from talking about pay with coworkers.

Our tight-lipped tendencies make it hard to know if you’re making a fair amount—and make it all the more infuriating if you do find out that you’re underpaid. So what can you do if you find yourself in this frustrating situation? Approach your employer, says Lydia Frank, senior editorial and marketing director at Payscale, a salary-tracking company.

“Men are negotiating four times more often than women—and they typically ask for 30% more,” Frank says. “Women typically approach their work as, ‘Keep your head down, work hard, do a good job and someone will reward you.’ But that’s generally not the case. You are more aware of what you’re doing than your boss, and it’s your personal responsibility to reinforce that and message that.”

Of course, broaching the topic of pay inequality with your boss is easier said than done—so here’s how to walk into a conversation feeling as confident as possible.

1. Get as much info as possible about what you should be making
Of course, knowing what your coworkers are making would be the most helpful information going into a negotiation. But since that’s not always realistic, there are other ways to gather useful data.

If you work for a public company or a university, at least some of the salaries within the organization are likely public (although you may have to do some digging online or by calling the administration to find them).

Another helpful resource can be associations for your industry (think: the American Chemical Society if you’re a chemist) since they often survey members about their salaries. You should be doing salary-related research at least once a year so you can stay informed of changes in the market, says Frank.

2. Practice talking yourself up
Make sure you go into any meetings prepared to recount all of your recent achievements and your glowing performance reviews.

“One technique is to practice as if you were arguing for a raise for somebody else,” says Hill. “Women tend to be very successful negotiators when they’re talking about somebody else’s well being.”

Negotiation workshops, like those offered by the AAUW, can also help you go in feeling more confident.

3. Consider getting outside help
It’s understandable if the thought of approaching your supervisor makes you feel uneasy—having a conversation about pay could change the dynamics of your relationship. Some companies have equal employment opportunity officers who exist for the sole purpose of helping you navigate these tricky situations. If your workplace doesn’t offer this resource, the AAUW and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have people who can educate you about your legal options—even if you’re unsure whether you want to file an official claim.

4. Choose your approach carefully
This is where things get really infuriating. “There’s all kinds of research out there that shows the same qualities in women and men are perceived very differently by employers,” says Jessica Milli, the study director at the 
Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “For example, women who are demanding during wage negotiations are viewed negatively versus men who negotiate—they’re seen as being confident and having confidence in their value. So that’s a huge hurdle.”

The ideal, says Hill, is to negotiate in a way that comes off as constructive rather than confrontational—so as to avoid disrupting gender norms. “It’s something women shouldn’t have to worry about, but unfortunately they do because it is there.”

She suggests considering your boss, your company and what achievements they value so you can frame the conversation in a way that will appeal to them.

5. Use meetings to solicit as much feedback as possible
Many women feel that there’s no point to asking their boss for more money because they think they’ll just say they can’t offer them anything at this time. But even if that turns out to be the case, approaching your superior can still lead to a productive discussion.

“Keep your negotiation focused on your performance, and ask a lot of questions about your company’s salary policy: What the range is for your position and how it’s set, what data is used, what flexibility there is to that number,” says Frank.

Adds Hill: “You’re going to learn what your goals should be—or you’re going to learn that this position isn’t going to advance very much further and that you need to be looking elsewhere.”

6. Negotiate for a spot at the table, not just salary
“One of the things that women often find is they’re not put on big projects,” says Hill. Even if your employer isn’t able to increase your salary, you could request the opportunity to be put on those assignments—or to get further training, either in your office or through a course or workshop.

“The opportunities to shine—that’s almost where you start because that’s what you really would like to have under your belt when you go and say I want more money,” says Hill.

7. Follow up
If your boss gives you the dreaded, “It’s just not in the budget right now,” make sure to ask when you can revisit the topic. “Negotiation isn’t a one-time event,” says Hill. “You can go back multiple times to negotiate all aspects of your work, including the kind of work you do.”

If you want to pursue your legal options…
“There are two different ways the EEOC and individuals can attack gender-based pay discrimination: Through the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” says EEOC spokesperson Justine Lisser, who notes that you may have as little as 180 days (or as long as two years) after you realize you’re being underpaid to take legal action, depending on the state you live in and which Act you seek protection under (you can choose to use both).

Someone from the EEOC can walk you through this process if you call 1-800-669-4000 or email info@eeoc.gov (heads up—there are often long wait times for calls). The AAUW also has a legal advocacy fund that can help you understand your rights and offer you assistance.

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Write to Robin Hilmantel at robin.hilmantel@time.com