what to do if you’re paid less than a male coworker

With more people than ever talking openly about their salaries, you might learn at some point that you’re being paid less than a male coworker for doing the same work. Or you might have seen the data on how commonly this happens and want to find out if it’s occurring in your company – and to you. Since federal law makes it illegal to pay men and women differently for the same work, you have recourse if you’re earning less than male coworkers.

At New York Magazine today, I have a step-by-step action plan for how to raise the issue — and what to do if it doesn’t work. You can read it here.

{ 132 comments… read them below }

  1. ElizabethJane*

    A few years ago I was able to get a significant pay bump based on this.

    I absolutely used the “help me understand if there are certifications or qualifications so I can get those too” even though I knew there weren’t. It made the conversation far easier for me to start.

    1. Reluctant Mezzo*

      Where I used to work, they would just give the guys slightly different titles and women just somehow never qualified for those titles. Sigh.

  2. ThursdaysGeek*

    In my case, I and my male co-workers saw it happening (management had changed, and what was equitable rapidly changed). They urged me to find a new job. I saw the truth in that, and asked if they wanted to work for a company like that. So we all found new jobs and left within a few weeks of each other.

  3. BellyButton*

    I had been at the company for 5 years when there was a re-org. I was assigned 5 new employees. 2 were white older males who had higher titles and salaries than me. I sat on it for 6 mo, then went to my boss and grand boss and said- “here is what they do, and here is what I do. I would like my title to be X and based on ABC my salary should be $.” They refused. I then contacted our legal department and gave them the same info. They did not respond. I then contacted a lawyer and paid a one time flat rate for them to send a letter outlining the same thing I outlined (because I had done all the work of research, and gave it all to the lawyer it was $125). I got my title and raise bump.

    But it was clear that I would forever have to fight for myself, and it was exhausting. I left about 1 year later for a job that was 2 titles up and about $50k more. Right after both my male employees (who were awesome) left too.

    I heard from my one friend who still works for the company that they replaced me with 3 JR level people and it is now a sh*t show and a worthless department.

    I know I should take glee in it, but F*** I do.

    1. Sloanicota*

      What sucks is that I’m not sure how successful I’d be in a role that I had to get legal advice to strongarm my way into – with no support or goodwill from my employer. As we saw in this morning’s letter, there’s an awful lot of fringe ways a company can make you miserable if they want to. I guess one strategy is to get the raise and promotion you deserve but immediately begin job searching to leverage it into a better position in a less crappy company.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Yeah, that seems to be what BellyButton did here. As she said, it is exhausting. This is a good example of how systemic “isms” work and why they are so exhausting to be on the receiving end of.

      2. BellyButton*

        I love what I do, but I did less and less and less. My least was still 5x more than most other employees so it wasn’t even noticed. I left as soon as I found the perfect job.

        1. 2 Cents*

          +1 “My least was still 5x more than most other employees” <–this right here. How many of us (who read this site) can say this? I feel like I've done this my whole career and all I've been rewarded with is meager raises (in the 1%-5% range, if any) AND more work and responsibilities. At first, I thought it meant "they're noticing me!" Now, far too late in my career, I've realized it just makes me someone to dump work on. I was laid off in November, and part of my "never again" speech to myself is I'm not taking on more than I'm being compensated for.

          1. BellaStella*

            Not taking on more than you are compensated for is called “acting your wage” and at age 50+ I am starting to finally do this too.

            1. BellyButton*

              Yes. I am 50 this year and have made the same rule. I am not doing everything anymore! I am not taking on more and more and pushing myself. My job is not my identity.

    2. CupcakeCounter*

      Yup – when I left an OldJob, it took 3 people to do what I was doing. I ran into the jerk grand-boss who said something like “and they are accomplishing way more than you did”. I looked at him and went “no shit! There are 3 of them!”. I also reminded him that they are costing him nearly 3X as much to do almost the same thing I did.

  4. L-squared*

    This is all great, but I’ve also seen too many times of where the person making more is then treated badly for something that isn’t their fault. This is what makes me hesitant to talk openly about salary. Not that I won’t do it, but it really depends on what I know of the person. I (a guy) have discussed it with someone who I trusted to use the information wisely, and I’ve seen people have those open conversations where the conversation shifted to what John “deserves” to make, and he may get more work thrown his way because he makes more money.

    I think the fact that the person making more may get negative blowback is often WAY overlooked with things like this. And maybe some people feel that its acceptable collateral damage, but I’d also say that for that person, it may not be, which is why you may wanted to be a little more judicious about these conversations.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I think this is possibly real (and I know someone – a female actually – who discussed salary with another female coworker who had recently been promoted, and got a lot of blowback from HR on the “managers may not discuss their salary at XCorp and it’s clear you must have done so) … but I also think we don’t want to be crabs in a bucket, dragging each other down while someone else makes off with the real profits. Can you really feel great about being paid a lot, knowing others are being underpaid for no real reason in order to give you that raise? Can you really be happy not being able to justify why you already deserve what you earn, if it turns out you actually don’t do anything more than a woman earning 20K, 50K, 100K less?

      1. L-squared*

        You can look at it as crabs in a bucket, or you can look at it as not lighting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.

        If I found out my company was actively doing this, I may decide I don’t want to work there anymore, but that doesn’t mean i’m going to open myself to an unpleasant work environment for other people either. I shouldn’t have to suffer because of bad management decisions. If I know its the type of environment to make my life more difficult, I’d probably make my plan to leave, and let the others know on my way out.

        If you or other people want to be the catalyst for change, and a martyr, and all that stuff, and you are happy to put yourself in a worse position in order to effect change for many others, that is great for you. But I’m not sure that I will want that for myself.

        1. Aggie*

          Wow. Please don’t ever describe yourself as someone who is proponent for equal rights.

          You realize that if pay disparity (that benefits you) is brought to light and your work load or salary is changed due to it, that you work for a shitty company? It’s not the person who is being treated in equitably‘s fault that you have changes to your circumstances because the company you work for can’t do the right thing.

          1. 15 Pieces of Flair*

            Apologies for the errant comment nesting. While my comment isn’t a direct response to this thread, I’ll note that D’s willingness to share his salary was essential and much appreciated. He also inadvertently earned a lot of respect from his future manager as he was later assigned to my team. (I had no info on who my directs would be at the time.)

          2. L-squared*

            I’m not talking about my salary or workload, I’m talking about how I may be treated by peers or management. Everyone isn’t rational about these things. People get jealous, they talk behind your back, they try to pawn off work on you because “you make more anyway”.

            I have enough stuff in my life going on where I don’t want to make my work life more stressful than it is.

            You can be for equal rights without wanting to be the one to put your neck on the line.

            You think Rosa Parks was the first black person who wanted equal rights in the 50s? No. But she may have been one of the few who were willing to go to jail. And that makes her a hero. But it doesn’t mean that any other people who didn’t choose that route were any less invested in equal rights

            1. ceiswyn*

              So in what sense are you ‘for’ equal rights? What do you do or say to encourage equality?

              Because if all you do is inwardly think ‘yeah, women should be equal’ while outwardly silently accepting the status quo at every turn, your effect on the world is exactly the same as you *not* being for equal rights.

            2. Elizabeth*

              This is the most privileged and tone deaf post I gave seen on here. And you continue to double down on it. You clearly can’t get the point when stuck with the sharp end of it

        2. 15 Pieces of Flair*

          TL/DR: Your manager’s (or even their manager’s) support may not be enough. Some companies won’t fully address inequities unless forced.

          A few years ago at a midsize tech startup, E, a female implementation manager in a major US city, mentioned to a coworker, C, that she was struggling because she was only making 70k. C knew that this was absurdly low for the role. C and I are friends, so she brought this to me, a senior woman in E’s department.

          To complicate matters, I was in the process of being promoted to manager and needed to act quickly while I was still covered under NLRB protection. E needed a salary number from a comparable male implementation manager to pursue this and wasn’t comfortable asking anyone, so I asked D, a male implementation manager in the same major city. Unsurprisingly, he was making 113k. (D was an external hire. E was promoted from a lower paying position, so her current salary reflected a percentage increase on her first salary, not the market value of the role.)

          I coached E on how to ask her manager, J, to advocate for her. He agreed and immediately brought this our director’s attention. Director took this to both the COO and HR, and they were only willing to offer E a 20k raise. They cited an internal policy capping raises (which shouldn’t apply to an adjustment like this) as their excuse.

          E wasn’t willing to pursue legal action and never was paid fairly at that company. D, E, and I all left for better paying external roles about a year later.

      2. Silver Robin*

        Agreed on being uncomfortable with a pay gap, but I interpreted it is something like this:

        Coworkers: and how much do you get paid, John?

        John: 15% more than you

        Coworkers: what??? We have the same job and experience, that is not fair. Why do you get more money? You suck!

        Because people get mad at the person who made the inequality obvious, rather than the ones who created the inequality in the first place. That is actually a super common attribution error. So yeah, it can be uncomfortable and socially risky to reveal that info. The way I usually handle that is by saying “I make xyz because of abc” if you have abc or equivalent, it is unfair that they are paying you less. You should absolutely advocate for more, here are resources on how to do that.” That kind of response is a lot more time/emotion intensive, but it does cut off that attribution error and refocus on the real problem: the larger company/organization that is paying folks unequally.

        1. stratospherica*

          Yeah, at my job we have one team that does a lot of overtime, and one team that does comparatively less (though still quite a lot in absolute terms). Team 1, seeing this, says that Team 2 should be doing more overtime, rather than bringing it upwards and advocating for systemic changes that would reduce their overtime.

          That race to the bottom is how I interpreted L-Squared’s comment. I guess along with sharing your salary, you can – as you said – share the reasons why, and if there are no particular reasons why, you can add your voice for pay parity.

      3. RedinSC*

        “Can you really feel great about being paid a lot, knowing others are being underpaid for no real reason in order to give you that raise?”

        This is my concern about when you go to HR, per the advice. HR in this case KNOWS exactly what the pay disparities are between staff. They know what the jobs are, and they know the laws around this, yet they still let this happen. So, while, yes, I think you shouldn’t skip that step, I really think it will have 0 effect on anything and the only way to move forward is by seeing that lawyer for filing the EEOC complaint.

        1. Troubadour*

          Depending on the company, while HR knows what people are being paid, they may not fully understand the positions and therefore who should be being paid comparably. Especially but not only if the scope of the position has shifted over time and the official position description no longer reflects what you actually do.

          Conversely line managers should understand the positions, but mightn’t actually be paying attention to the details of pay because that’s all handled by payroll (and/or mightn’t be aware of pay details in other departments that should be comparable).

          So it can be useful to go to your manager/HR to lay it out. At my work there’s a process to update your position description and, if it’s a significant change, get it sent to be re-evaluated for where in the pay scales it should fall.

      4. Marta*

        But again the fault should lie with the management who are the ones that can do something about it

    2. jasmine*

      Honestly sometimes the person paying higher *doesn’t* deserve to get paid more. But that’s also something to get mad at management about, not at the employee. It’s true though that it can create an unfair negative perception.

      I think that can be mitigated though. So if you’re having a conversation with coworkers on salary maybe say “Yeah, I make $X. I think it’s important that we can have honest conversations about salary to promote equal pay in the organization”

      1. L-squared*

        It is true they may not deserve it, but as you said, still not their fault. And expecting them to open themselves up to that criticism and having to justify their salary isn’t really fair to them, as they have done nothing wrong.

        1. Prof*

          it’s fairer than the wage disparity. Sorry, but these kind of arguments are exactly how we maintain the status quo: the people in privileged class won’t bear any cost of fixing things. It doesn’t matter that it’s not your fault; you’re benefiting from being a member of a privileged class. We’re asking you to do something about it, and yes, that may make your life harder. No one’s asking you to give up pay even, just to help her the rest of us to equal pay.

          1. L-squared*

            The person who should bear the cost of fixing things are the managers, not the coworkers. Even now, you are completely proving my point. Acting like the people who may make more are somehow in the wrong, as opposed to, you know, the ACTUAL people making these decisions is exactly the problem.

            1. Another Use of the Identify Spell*

              Refusing to stand up to blatant injustice IS wrong. In this case, it also knowingly allows illegal behavior to continue. No one is ever prosecuted for “accessory to wage theft” but that doesn’t make it right.

              You can, however, be justly upset at this unfairness and willing to help your colleagues point out that *surely* the company doesn’t intend to break the law like this. (Or whatever strategy seems best for the situation.) See how a tiny bit of cooperation can make you the good guy?

        2. jasmine*

          I don’t think there’s a great risk for someone who’s openly invested in equal pay. People are much more likely to praise someone like that than criticize them, and it’s incredibly unlikely that the company will reduce their salary (and you’ll probably know if you work at the kind of org where that’s a risk).

      2. A Significant Tree*

        I had a male colleague do this for me when I was interviewing with the company he worked for, and I really appreciated that. We would have had same title, with similar seniority and skills (he had more experience, I had more credentials). He just said “My salary is $X and I would expect that you’ll be offered the same.” As it happens, my offer was for $X, which was reassuring and I reported this back to him. If it had been for a little less, I would have asked for at least $X and walked if I didn’t get it. If it had been for far less, I would have declined outright. (I ended up turning down the offer but not because of salary/benefits.)

  5. Slow Gin Lizz*

    This reminds me of when my mom worked for a small company that did contract work (training) for a gov’t agency. They were hiring some new trainers and one guy who was perfectly adequate but nowhere near my mom’s level of superstar was hired. He also had some kind of credential that required him to be paid a certain amount of money b/c gov’t work; I don’t remember the exact details. What I do remember is that that amount was higher than what my mom, an employee of several years (she ended up being a VP by the time she retired), was making at the time. The boss called my mom into his office and said, “I can’t believe we have to pay Fergus more than what we pay you” and gave her a nice big pay raise.

    He’s a good guy, that ol’ boss. I worked for him for a few years too before he retired.

    1. Sloanicota*

      In this case, it would be nice if the company would sponsor, or at least encourage/support, your mom in also securing that credential! I have often wondered if some kind of extra certification could make a real difference in my salary or not; I don’t have the luxury of paying out of pocket for extra training if not.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        In that case, I think it was something like he was a veteran or had worked for the gov’t directly for a number of years. Not something my mom could easily get or even wanted to get. So I think I misremembered it to be a credential when it actually was more like a level of gov’t experience my mom didn’t have.

  6. Nay*

    Ooh! I successfully did this! A male co-worker was making almost $14,000 more than me. I very tactfully told my manager (when she told me about my already $11,500 raise) that I appreciated the raise and small promotion, but now the promotion put me in line with Male Co-worker, and he was still being paid $14k more.

    I pointed out that, I was sure it wasn’t their intention to pay a male co-worker with similar experience and the same title as me so much more, but even the optics of it were not legal. Or fair. They said he had more experience than me, which although was true, it was maybe a year….and I had a higher degree and an important certification that he didn’t have, so the gap was still Big. They closed the gap to $5,000, and I happily accepted that given his slightly more experience. Felt like a huge win!

  7. 1-800-BrownCow*

    What if you (female) applied and was give a role that a previous manager (male) left to go to another company, but the company changed your title, even though you took on the same responsibilities and had the same group of people report to you and you suspect the title change was a way to pay you less than your male counterparts? I’ve asked the previous person in my role and the men in similar roles (with titles equal to the role I filled before the title was changed) but they will not discuss their salary with me. Even using the wording that I think there are gender inequalities in our pay structure, they won’t tell me their salary. I have a suspicion that if I raised it with my manager, they will use my different title as a reason for my pay being lower (or I highly suspect it’s lower). The role I applied for and replaced had a manager title and was changed to a group leader title when I was given the position. I came from a very similar background and slightly more experience than my predecessor. However my predecessor was an outside hire whereas I’m an internal promotion that has always felt I’m probably paid less than my male counterparts. Also, I’m the only female in my position at the company as it’s a very male dominant environment, so I don’t have other women to ask their experience either.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      Can you ask HR for a position description for the original title? Since I assume you already have on for your current title, do a comparison. But your male colleagues suck if they won’t share info with you.

      1. pally*

        I bet the male employees were cautioned not to divulge their salary to anyone. And given some lame reason why they shouldn’t.

        When raises are given, I get cautioned not to talk about it or divulge what I received. They claim it is to avert hurt feelings as not everyone received a raise nor the same % raise that I did.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I really wish more people knew enough about US labor law to know that their employer cannot tell them not to discuss salary. But there’s no reason she can’t review a job description.

          I love that government salaries are public.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Oh wow, that sounds terrible! If you interviewed for the position and they said it was a manager position but then changed it once you started the position, that could be grounds for some kind of legal recourse, but IANAL and I imagine that any legal recourse probably wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

      I did wonder at first if you were an outside hire and they decided to make your position slightly lower since you didn’t have as much seniority as he did, but now I see that it’s completely the opposite, in which case it’s even worse b/c by hiring you the company saved themselves a mountain of new employee paperwork and training, plus you already know a lot about your new team and company that couldn’t be learned in training. So you, IMHO, should be making even MORE than the guy who left. Or at least the same amount.

      Also IMHO it sounds like your company doesn’t value you the way they should (been there, done that, quit mightily after three years) and the only way you will be able to work with people who value you (and pay you what you’re worth!) is to move along to a different company. Sorry, BrownCow, it totally suuuuuuucks but it does feel good once you get that new job with the higher paycheck.

    3. Sneaky Squirrel*

      I suspect you aren’t being paid comparably to male counterparts because the title is different. I also suspect that you’re correct that they will use the difference in title as the justification for a lower salary. It’s very possible that salary/sexism was not the driving factor of this title change. Many companies aren’t intentionally sexist/racist; sometimes it needs to be pointed out to them.

      Some valid reasons for a new title might be that they felt that you had not met the qualifications for the managerial role, so they created a new role with lowered responsibilities and qualifications for you to qualify. Or perhaps that they intend for this role to go a different route than the predecessor and have different responsibilities. Regardless, it sounds like you’re seeing this is not the case.

      For starting a conversation, you could approach it as a request for clarification on the difference in expectations between a group leader and manager and then if/when it’s revealed that there’s little to no difference in job descriptions, express concern that you’re not being paid equitably to your male peers or the predecessor despite doing the same work. Be sure to document what work you’re doing in support of this so when they try to say that predecessor did X task, you can back it up and say that you’re doing it.

    4. Lab Rabbit*

      If I understand correctly, it’s about the work you do, not the title you have. If the responsibilities are the same, and you are being paid less, I don’t think it matters what your title is. Titles are just labels and are pretty much meaningless outside the organization.

        1. Lab Rabbit*

          Yes, but I think it still counts as illegal discrimination, regardless of how the company describes it, or assigns it to a pay band. If a woman in pay band A is doing the work of a man in pay band B, she should get the same salary he does, regardless of titles.

          I often think the whole pay bands thing is used as a smoke and mirrors thing by a lot of companies.

    5. Alex*

      Something similar happened to me. Even though I had the same experience (and more education), and a *larger* workload than my male colleagues, they were given a higher title and job grade (and therefore, higher pay). My manager claimed it was because they “only had room for two people with higher titles” and that I had to wait for one of them to leave before I got the higher title, in spite of the fact that I was already doing all of the work of the higher level position. What I did was ask my male colleague for his job description, brought it to HR, and compared the job descriptions of my title and my male colleague’s title. I then detailed how I exceeded all the metrics in HIS job description for workload and responsibility, and yet I was being denied the higher level job. It took a bit, but I did get promoted (unfortunately I didn’t get back pay, which I think I was entitled to since this had been going on for YEARS before I finally got the “promotion”).

      Is there any way you can get your hands on the job description of your predecessor? You can then do a point-by-point comparison between what you do and what they were doing to see if there is actually any difference.

    6. Sloanicota*

      Ugh, that outside/inside hire thing is so brutal, and seems near-universal. I wish there was a law that companies have to pay equally for roles based on experience, not discount the staff they take for granted. My career has been badly burned by that (but I’m not clear it’s gendered).

    7. CupcakeCounter*

      Did we used to work together? That happened to an old coworker. They were a manager and the Director was retiring. She interviewed and got the job but it was downgraded to “Senior Manager”. This was a REALLY BAD look considering that 12 women had left the department in the prior 6 months due to the old boys club mentality of the organization. She contacted the female head of HR about it and she did less than nothing. The lawyer she contacted next did though. Old coworker got a nice hush settlement and a great new job as VP as a competitor.

    8. Reluctant Mezzo*

      You must work where I used to! Even the clerks in payroll knew about the Y-bonus there (private lunches can be ever so enlightening).

    1. Judge Judy and Executioner*

      Having been part of an EEOC investigation after I reported racist comments, I’m not impressed with the EEOC. At least in my experience, it lacked teeth and did not bring about real change.

      1. Industry Behemoth*

        This was 20 years ago, at a past job. I was emailing some documents to an attorney at the EEOC. He asked me to send it to his personal email, because he was blind and his workplace computer didn’t have the tools he needed to read them.

  8. Debbie Angle*

    Oh, this happened to me at a state institution. All salaries were public record. I was told it was b/c he had a Masters (only a bachelors was required). After I completed all my research, I made an appointment with the office of institutional equity, presented my case and about a month later, I received a 20% increase in my salary!

  9. OrigCassandra*

    Thank you, Alison. Much appreciated. This will likely show up in a syllabus or two of mine.

  10. Provolone Piranha*

    I recently followed this advice when I discovered a male coworker with my same title was making $40,000 more than me. My boss shrugged and told me to go to HR, who also shrugged and said it was because my coworker had more experience and there was nothing they could do about it.
    I started applying to jobs like a madwoman after that and shamelessly interviewed on company time. I got a new role with a $30,000 pay bump. When I gave notice to my boss, he asked what my new salary would be. His face was priceless.
    I encourage everyone to ask about salary!

    1. Nay*

      Because he had more experience?? I mean, yeah, maybe if you made $1mil and he made $1.04 mill, sure! But that feels unjustifiable to me! Good for you for moving on :)

    2. 2 Cents*

      My friend did something similar, except when her old boss asked what her new salary would be (old + $50k more), his reply was “they must be desperate.” What a [creative term]. They’d been underpaying her for years.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I was being underpaid too. Finally working a job where I feel like I’m being paid what I’m worth, but the fact that ExJob was at a nonprofit and the highest paid people at the NP were the only three men working there was telling….the women were holding down the fort while the CEO was out brownnosing with potential donors and hardly doing anything that involved any kind of expertise…now, granted, meeting with donors is definitely important and a job that deserves to be well paid, but the fact that the rest of us were making about 1/3 what he made was really frustrating.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Unfortunately, brown nosing with potential donors is what pays the salaries–sad but true. But that kind of differential really bites.

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Yeah, for sure, plus it’s a job that I would be absolutely terrible at, so I do appreciate that. But the fact that he never managed anyone and took a somewhat toxic positivity attitude (aka problems didn’t exist so no need to do any kind of deep dive to solve them) meant that the rest of us spent our time trying to deal with the problems that he ignored. Which meant that the problems didn’t get solved because the higher ups didn’t believe they existed or needed to be solved, which meant us workerbees were incredibly frustrated, stuck working with issues that were never fixed with no power to do anything about it. Higher ups kept us workerbees down, keeping all the power and most of the money to themselves. It was really terrible for morale and I’m so glad I got out.

  11. Princess Peach*

    I really appreciate the men who notice this and do something, even if it’s just sharing their salaries and credentials openly.
    Too many times, I’ve seen men assume either this isn’t a problem or that *of course* they’re better compensated because they’re just more valuable and competent workers!

    1. Sloanicota*

      Agree, shout out to the allies who are willing to help. I had to ask a senior male coworker who had the role I was being promoted into. He was uncomfortable naming a figure, and asked me to please keep what he said to myself, but we still had a good conversation around the ballpark (“Mid 40s? High 50s?”) and it gave me a huge confidence boost walking into the negotiation.

      1. Toots La'Rue*

        My husband has his salary posted openly on his internal white pages! He’s the best.

    2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      Nobody likes to realize that they’re playing the game on the “easy” setting, do they? (hat tip to John Scalzi)

  12. Totally Hypothetical*

    My last review I got half the raise (5% v 2.5%) as a male co-worker with the same title and the same rating on his review. He does have a master’s degree and I don’t which could explain him getting hired at a higher salary than me ($105k v the $90k I was making in the roles when he was hired) but I’m not sure if they can make the same argument for a raise. Is this worth raising? He has said he’d back me to management

    1. Sloanicota*

      It sucks because 2.5 percent of an already-higher number is more money! I’d at least go back to your boss and ask for clarification as to what you would need to do to get a 5% raise, and have your BS meter on high as you listen to the answer.

    2. Your Former Password Resetter*

      I’d say you can absolutely ask about it.
      The degree does muddle things a bit, but it would make total sense to ask how you can get the same raises that your coworker got, and what got him that extra raise (since it apparently wasn’t the rating).

      Depending on what their answer is, and how reasonable management/HR is, you can then compare that to your own review and push for the 5% raise.

      1. Totally hypothetical*

        Would it doom my future at my current company? I’ve hesitated because I don’t want to lose any chance of future advancement

        1. Hermione Danger*

          You can have a future OUTSIDE of that company. And honestly, hope of future advancement is the thing that keeps people acting against their own best interests. Equity today, once you’ve achieved it, is a much surer thing than something you’d like to have happen later. And if it DOES affect your future at that organization, you’ve learned something valuable about what would have happened to you without the equity.

  13. WellRed*

    My company (approximately 1000 employees) is overall decent and I hope that salaries are equitable. But I kid you not, at my annual review my manager (who’s awesome but we’re creatives, so I suspect she lacks some basic knowledge) had some boilerplate about not discussing salaries that the company put forth. Thus was while discussing my 3% increase. I pointed out to her that was a violation of federal labor law. She was surprised. I’ll be curious to see if it comes up again.

    1. Ama*

      I was invited to present at a senior staff meeting a few years ago (I am not senior staff but I was running a specific initiative) right around performance review time, and one of the senior managers said that everyone should tell their reports not to share their raises so there were no hurt feelings. I pointed out we couldn’t actually do that legally (and backed it up after the meeting by sending the CEO one of Alison’s posts on that actual issue). And I will say I never heard anyone after that say they were told not to discuss salaries but I was still *very* disappointed that I was the only one willing to speak up — if it hadn’t happened to be the day I was in the meeting apparently none of the other senior managers would have said anything.

    2. RedinSC*

      Once, the CEO of the non profit I worked at said something about “telling staff to not discuss their salaries or raises” and HR and I both jumped in saying “that’s illegal, we can’t say that!”

      then we was the shocked Pikachu face.

  14. Tegan Keenan*

    One question regarding item number 5: “Don’t answer questions about how you know someone else’s salary.”

    If you are in a role that gives you access to coworkers’ salaries (finance/payroll, etc.) for which you are expected to maintain discretion, I would want to clarify that I was actually provided the information by someone; not that I was using my access. But maybe that should not matter?

    1. Sloanicota*

      I do think this is dicey and most people in finance/HR have high burdens on confidentiality for the information they receive. I know as a grantwriter, my boss is tetchy about sharing the salaries with me (which I need to write the budget) and we had to discuss the need for privacy, so I wouldn’t want it to look like I then used the information for other purposes.

    2. Veryanon*

      I work in HR, and while I don’t actively go seeking someone’s salary information, sometimes I need to pull it because of my work. But frankly, it shouldn’t matter. You’re not using the salary information for an improper purpose, you’re using it to make sure everyone is being paid equitably.

    3. fhqwhgads*

      I wouldn’t want to clarify. You shouldn’t need to bring up how you know, and if they ask, the only thing they could do with that info is illegally retaliate against someone. If they asked me how I knew that, I’d pivot to “so you’re denying it?” as that’s the relevant bit.
      “I noticed you’re doing this illegal thing and hope you want to not do the illegal thing” should be the tone of the whole thing.
      If they are directly accusing you of misusing the info, or not having proper discretion, again, that’s a misdirect from them deflecting the whole “you should want to remedy this illegal thing”.

  15. Keyboard Cowboy*

    How does this apply to non-salary compensation, like equity grants? A number of years ago, I found out that a man who was hired with less seniority than me, into the same role as me, was granted about twice as much equity as I was (and that’s a nontrivial amount – he basically got handed $100k more than I got handed – welcome to tech in the Bay Area, lol). I did bring it up with HR once I found out, and they mentioned that they needed to offer higher one-time grants to new graduates to remain competitive in the market (and I, with my 1.5 years of full-time experience, apparently didn’t need that). I wasn’t super satisfied with that, but now I’m wondering if it was covered.

    (And, by the way, my employer also fairly recently lost a class-action lawsuit about gender pay disparity, so I’ve been getting payouts from that as part of the represented class – but certainly not $100k of stock grants worth of payout.)

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah it’s not uncommon to see newer workers being hired on for more because of cost of living has gone up or whatever, and I do think it’s an equity issue and companies need to do an analysis every couple years (but it may not be gendered? I’m not sure if a company is off the hook if they can point to every worker in a cohort being systematically paid more or less regardless of gender. But it would be crappy!).

  16. S*

    I didn’t know for sure, but I strongly suspected that there were some people on my team making significantly more money than I was. So I said this to my manager, immediately after a really positive performance evaluation: “I want to ask you to do something for me. Please take a look at what everyone on the team makes, and please ask yourself if it’s commensurate with the value that each of us brings to the team. I’m not asking for details, I’m just asking you to take a look.” I got a hefty raise two years in a row after that! :)

  17. Veryanon*

    I’ve probably shared this story before, but here goes. Back in 2009, I discovered that a male co-worker on my team, with less experience and qualifications, was making more than me because he had transferred into the role from a different department and they kept his pay whole. We both worked in HR doing very similar roles. I went to my manager (the HR Manager!) and pointed out the discrepancy. She said, well, yeah, but he has a family. Reader, I also had a family and was newly divorced to boot. So I then went to the General Counsel, whom I knew fairly well, and brought this to his attention in a “we’re going to get sued if we don’t fix this” kind of way. He was sympathetic, but…nothing happened and it was never fixed. Rather than file an EEOC claim, which I just didn’t have the energy for at that time, I decided to leave that job. I quickly found another job that was a major bump in both pay and title, and gave my two weeks’ notice. The head of HR asked me to meet with her and acted all shocked Pikachu face when I told her what had happened. They asked me if there was anything they could do to keep me. I told them my new role was offering me a $20K increase and that if they had just increased my comp to the male co-worker’s when I first brought it up, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
    I never looked back – last I heard, that male co-worker was let go for performance issues. Oh well.

    1. hugine*

      I started reading this and did a double take wondering if I had already posted my story.

    2. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      “he has a family”
      Yes, sounds like a trip in the Tardis back to 1959

  18. BluRae*

    This happened to me. It was about a $10k difference, but unfortunately I didn’t find out until we had both quit.

    I’m still extremely bitter.

  19. Bunny Ears*

    I work for government. Salaries are a matter of public record. The downside is that there are so many loopholes that can be used to give others raises despite being in the same title.
    They tried to put me in a new title, give me a 6% raise and the workload that goes with it. I said something and was told that the pay band was $55k to $250k. The pay disparity between me (being the only female in this title) and everyone else was 22%. My union said that everything looked good.
    I walked away from the title bump.
    To find a new employer is going to require relocation, and in this economic climate, it’s not feasible.

    1. RedinSC*

      DANG! Here in the local government I’m working for, the pay bands are so tiny that this could not happen. But your union not stepping up for you is really nasty.

    2. Varthema*

      Can anyone comment on how region-based pay factors into this? I am 1000% pro comparing salaries, but it’s hard to do when people live in such disparate economies – even when I do hear a salary, I don’t have any frame of reference for what that means in Brazil, nor do they have that frame of reference for me in Ireland. And then of course the added wrinkle that nearly all the US-based execs are men…

      (FWIW, I kind of hate region-based pay. I get it – if tech companies paid Silicon Valley salaries in Dublin the economy would be even more wrecked than it already is, probably – but within the company it kinda sucks.)

      1. Varthema*

        sorry, I swear I double-checked this time for nesting issues… and yet. Reposting in its own thread!

  20. Despachito*

    When I read this and Allison’s advice I wonder whether what happened to me was a gender discrimination or not:

    I was hired 3 years later than my coworker Fergus.

    Our company’s overall policy was to give each employee a pay raise every year that was based on a percentage of that employee’s salary.

    The first three years the company was doing well and this pay bump was 10 per cent for everyone, including Fergus.

    Then I was hired as a fresh graduate, and the company started to do less well, and that pay bump decreased to 5 per cent. This was valid for everyone, i.e. both for me and for Fergus.

    After several years in the company, I was doing both llama grooming and llama food cooking. Fergus was doing just the llama food cooking because he was too afraid of llamas to do the grooming. Our immediate manager, Wakeen, was encouraging this and never forcing Fergus to do llama grooming (he and Fergus were sort of friends), so if it came to llama grooming, Wakeen and myself were alternating to do this.

    Then I accidentally saw Fergus’s pay slip and found out he makes about one third more than I do. It grated me the wrong way because I knew I was willing to do both the grooming and the cooking while Fergus was not, but because of the company’s policy (giving all employees the same percentage of pay raise and Fergus being there more years) it was not clear whether this was discrimination or not.

    Was it, and what do you think I should have done? (I actually did nothing, partly out of fear of damaging Fergus, partly out of fear of stirring the pot and being possibly retaliated against, and I do not know whether I had a leg to stand on. Fergus is male, I am female, but given the company policy it is likely that if it was the other way round it would have been possibly the same?)

    1. HR Friend*

      No, that’s not discrimination. He was more experienced, at your job and maybe in general? Employees at the same level can be assigned different duties, and it sounds like he was even a step above you in the pay structure. The annual raise isn’t a factor. If anything, it shows your company was diligent in applying COLAs equitably and not based on merit or tenure.

      BTW, changing real work responsibilities to llama tasks makes it impossible to tell if the work you were doing was more critical or at a higher level than what your colleague was doing. I promise you, if you say accounts payable and accounts receivable, no one will trace it back to your real identity.

      1. Despachito*

        More critical or at a higher level – difficult to say.

        Task A (my “llama food cooking”) both Fergus and I were doing requires a certain skillset (mostly accuracy) and is done without contact with clients. It represented 90 % of our work tasks.

        Task B (my “llama grooming”) Fergus refused to do requires a different skillset (ability to quickly think on your feet) is rather stressful and you are in constant contact with clients. It was about 10 % of our work tasks, was intermittent but very intense.

        I think in terms of importance, A and B were at the same level – both were needed and – what is more important – both were what we were hired for. When Fergus refused to do B I perceived it as him not pulling his weight because it was in his job description as well as in mine.

        As to Task A, he was definitely more experienced when I started but I worked there several years and after some time I think I improved so that I was doing A at the same level as Fergus (or even better because I was able to balance accuracy and speed but he was a sort of a nitpicker and wasn’t able to work quickly at times when it was critical to have work done by a certain deadline and we were expressly told that this matters more than a polished result), and was able and willing to do B while he wasn’t.

        Looking back, I see it rather as incompetent management (Wakeen as the immediate manager enabled it and was nasty to me when I complained, and the higher-ups did not really care as long as the work was done. I had a hunch that if I stirred the pot and escalated it, I would not improve my situation and it would end badly for all three of us ).

    2. CupcakeCounter*

      As long as you and Fergus were hired in at the same starting pay for your experience, then I’m not seeing an issue. Yes, the fact that you are performing both roles vs Fergus’ one might give you a bit of standing to say “hey – llama grooming takes more skill, training, and time than llama food cooking. Since I am handling a higher portion than expected, can we look at adjusting my pay to account for that?” That only works if llama grooming IS the higher skilled task though.

      1. Despachito*

        I think it would work even if it isn’t, because being able and willing to do A + B, when both of them are needed, is more than being able and willing to do just A.

        I also think that it is absurd to be paid LESS for doing MORE work, and that after several years the advantage of seniority in terms of quality of work done disappears (is the work of a person who’s been there for 10 years really worth 1/3 more of that of a person who has been there for 8 years, while the outputs are the same or even better for the latter?)

        I perceive the whole situation as unjust but not as discrimination because it was basically no one’s fault (it was due to the company policy and this was the same for everyone). I was wondering whether others’ take would be the same.

        I did not point it out because I could not imagine doing it otherwise than pointing out that Fergus is not pulling his weight, and I would have perceived that as a low blow.

  21. RedinSC*

    I worked in fundraising at a public university for a number of years. there were 4 women and 2 men in the senior positions covering different divisions (arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering, biology and the library). The two men made somewhere around $30 – 50K more than I did per year. That’s A LOT of money.

    I was the newest/least experienced person in the senior role so I could see earning less. HOwever, there were women working there with more experience than those men, who also earned in the $15 – 20K less than those men.

    I think they justified it by the men being the ones working for the “hard sciences” and the women working in the arts and social sciences, therefore they deserve more.

    THis was a totally winnable lawsuit. But I also live and work in a very small town and I would have had a very difficult time finding employment if I did pursue a legal path.

    I got a new job, instead, cashed out my pension and put it in an IRA and never looked back.

  22. hugine*

    I have a male colleague who wanted a career change, and so he transferred internally into my department in a somewhat similar role to me. I worked a lot with him with the transition, helped train him, etc. It did kind of bother me that he was just given an equivalent role to me, someone with 15 years of experience, but whatever. I then discovered that they kept his salary the same as what he had been making in his other role, meaning he was earning significantly more than me. They justify it by saying that he brings a unique perspective or outside experience or something into the role. It’s always really bothered me, but I’ve never felt that I had the standing to bring it up.

    1. Veryanon*

      You should absolutely bring it up! Think about it as this: The job is worth $X, so anyone doing that job should be making $X.

    2. WellRed*

      They call it unique perspective. The rest of us call it inexperienced in the role. Does that help you decide whether you should bring it up? Cause you should.

  23. Brave Little Roaster*

    Has anyone had this type of conversation in a very small business with no HR? There’s only one other person at my company who does basically the same job as me; my other coworkers have pretty different roles. My counterpart is male and makes about 15% more than me; he has some seniority but it’s about 1-2 years difference and I have more overall industry experience. I would have to bring this up to the owner to get anywhere.

  24. NotASoccerMom*

    I had this happen to me once, and it triggered a rather unbelievable sequence of events. I’d worked in my first job for seven years and had done very well for the company, becoming one of their star performers. Then they hired this new guy to work on my team–he was straight out of college, with zero professional experience to that point. I was the assistant manager on the team and next in line for promotion at that time. After a few months, I overheard a conversation and put some things together, and he and I realized he was being paid 30% more than me. After some brainstorming with some people I trusted, I resolved to ask for a 30% raise to put me on the same level as this subordinate, objectively less experienced male coworker.

    My request for a raise was denied. I was told to my face that the male coworker, who was single and again just out of college, needed to be paid more than I was so he could raise a family. I was also told that I, a single gay woman, should get married (presumably to a man, I was not and largely still am not out) and have kids because I would be “a very good soccer mom.” I was also told that since I was not married, I should move back in with my parents to save money instead of expecting the company to pay me more.

    Unfortunately it did not stop there. After having this conversation in private with my boss, he started assigning projects that normally would have fallen to me to other people on the team. Or simply refusing to use work that I had completed, even though it was already finished. Other people on the team noticed something was up; one coworker pulled me aside and said he was pretty sure the boss was trying to get me fired. So one day when we were in a staff meeting and I proposed a project that was promptly reassigned to another member of the team even though it was clearly within my area of expertise, I confronted my boss and asked him if he was assigning this project to someone else because I was a woman. He said–and I am very nearly quoting him here–that yes he was, because he believed that it was inappropriate for women to work outside the home, and that he didn’t care who knew that or if they thought it was sexist or old fashioned. The other people in the meeting lost their minds at hearing this and started yelling and cussing him out, but it didn’t do anything to change his behavior.

    I turned in my two weeks’ notice shortly after this, and was told that I had “betrayed the company after all they had invested in me.”

    I lost all motivation for work after this incident and have never really worked up the energy to be the superstar top performer I used to be. I did a couple short stints at other jobs, but nothing really seemed to click for me. Eventually I went freelance and have been much happier working for myself, but I still can’t shake the feeling that this whole incident stunted my career and that I’ll never be able to get back on track.

    1. Brave Little Roaster*

      Wow o_O Is the sexist boss still there?
      I had a bad work experience that, while different from yours, also resulting in me losing that “superstar energy” and I’m also working on going freelance. I totally feel you on the “stunting my career” experience and it sucks.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      There are not enough swear words in the English language for my response. If he’s now retired, this would have been, what, 30 years ago? Not 1952, as I imagine it?

    3. Annie Nominous*

      That’s devastating just to read, I can’t imagine going through it. Thank you for sharing your story, I’m so sorry that happened to you.

  25. Varthema*

    (reposting after nesting fail)

    Can anyone comment on how region-based pay factors into this? I am 1000% pro comparing salaries, but it’s hard to do when people live in such disparate economies – even when I do hear a salary, I don’t have any frame of reference for what that means in Brazil, nor do they have that frame of reference for me in Ireland. And then of course the added wrinkle that nearly all the US-based execs are men…

    (FWIW, I kind of hate region-based pay. I get it – if tech companies paid Silicon Valley salaries in Dublin the economy would be even more wrecked than it already is, probably – but within the company it kinda sucks.)

    1. CostOfLiving*

      Yeah, I don’t think people understand how necessary regional based pay is. I live in one of the three most expensive locations in the US (Boston). I live in the suburb farthest from the city that’s still on the subway line, I make more than $125k/year, and I pay just about exactly 1/2 my take home pay for housing. And that’s just rent – not including utilities or any other expenses. I couldn’t afford to live closer to the city.

  26. K Smith*

    Thank you Allison for this. I found out recently that I am making 30K less than a male colleague. We have the exact same position, same qualifications, zero difference between our roles. I brought up the issue with my boss about a month ago and have received zero follow up. I’ll be using your suggestions immediately. Really, really appreciate the attention to this topic and the concrete suggestions.

    1. WellRed*

      I’d love it if Alison does an update from folks who read this article and realized they needed to speak up.

  27. Cash*

    Is it possible that the company could or would cut the man’s pay rather than increase the woman’s to meet the requirements of the law? Could that ever be a risk of sharing your salary info?

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      It’s possible, and I could see a really horrible company doing that and saying, “Well, Jane insisted that she be paid the same as Fergus and Wakeen, so both you men will be getting a pay cut.” But any pay cut is obvious evidence of a total crap company and hopefully at that point all three of them will leave for greener pastures.

      But I don’t think most companies would do this. As we can see from some of the stories here, what mostly happens at crap companies is the company says no to the woman but starts treating her like crap and the woman takes her expertise to a new company who will actually give her the pay she legally and rightfully deserves. And the good companies will realize that they’re doing a bad thing and rectify the situation without making a stink about it, but I now realize that there are a lot of crap companies who basically say, “Don’t like the pay here? Take it or leave it.”

    2. jasmine*

      A pay cut is such a huge no-no, I think it falls in the bucket of “technically your company can do this because it’s not illegal, but if they did, they’re bananas”

    3. takeachip*

      No, it’s specifically against the law to cut anyone’s pay for the purpose of equalizing.

  28. Spicy Tuna*

    At my last job, I was paid significantly more than my male coworker (same title, same education level, AND he had a CPA license which I did not). In addition to receiving a higher base salary, my bonus % was also higher.

      1. J*

        Why on earth is this good? The whole point is equal pay for equal work/qualifications, not “stick it to the men.”

  29. Slow Gin Lizz*

    I also want to add that it’s due to Ask A Manager (and a salary survey done by a tech group in my area) that led me to a) realize how *massively* underpaid I was at my last role and get a new job with a salary much more aligned with my expertise and the COL in my area and b) start discussing salary openly with my now former coworkers and even some of my friends. I usually preface it by talking about AAM and how us workerbees not discussing salary only benefits companies and disadvantages us workerbees, how it’s a cultural thing, yes, but that the culture was likely fostered by those companies frowning upon salary discussions as a way to control their workerbees. So I tell people how much I used to make, how I got a 40% pay increase by changing jobs, and how ridiculous the whole situation was at my last job, salary-wise. (And otherwise, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

    So thank you, AAM, for boosting my confidence enough to ask for what I deserve. I don’t think I would have thought to do so otherwise. I’m trying to use my powers for good and help others also ask for what they deserve, and here’s hoping pay equity will become the norm, sooner rather than later. (Yeah, I’m not overly optimistic about it but I try to be at least a little bit optimistic….)

  30. Problem!*

    I stepped into a role that was recently vacated by a man, I was more qualified than him in both education and work experience (to be honest I don’t know why he was even in the role in the first place). I found out I was being paid $25k less than him for the same job even though I was better qualified. Using the advice from this column I laid out the facts of my education vs his and my relevant experience vs his, and closed the gap to within $4k as a result. If I hadn’t asked for it I would not have gotten it because no one thought to check if we were being compensated equally.

  31. In the Wind*

    I have a higher degree and many years’ more experience than my male co-worker who does LESS work than I do–he doesn’t manage anyone (also, he *seems* to spend a lot of time playing video games on work time, but that’s none of my business). But he got there first, and was able to take advantage of some things that I wasn’t, due to changes in HR and the organization in general, so he makes at least $15K more a year than I do.

    I don’t actually blame him for this. He saw a good opportunity and went for it. I would have done the same thing, in his position.

    I blame our department head, who didn’t advocate for me with HR when she had a chance (and I asked her t0), and who doesn’t ever give either one of us anything challenging to do. I find things anyway; he doesn’t. I can’t fault him for not doing things he was never asked to do. I’ve pivoted to finding things to do that benefit my job search rather than benefiting the department.

  32. Peanut Hamper*

    I intend to leave my job soon and one of the last things I will do is send all my coworkers an email with my salary information (and my personal contact information for some of them). Our management seriously discourages discussing wages and compensation, even though they know it’s illegal.

    1. Annie Nominous*

      That’s awesome. I had a male coworker in the same position as me call to let me know he was leaving (we were both fully remote) and I finally took the opportunity to ask him his salary. He told me everything: starting salary, raises, his new salary, and the counteroffer. Thanks to him I realized I was nearly $10k behind him doing the same work for longer.

  33. Annie Nominous*

    I recently left a job without another lined up where the core issue was that I was overworked and underpaid, but I didn’t know how thoroughly underpaid until I asked and a male coworker in the same position told me. I was burned out and it ended up being the killing blow for what morale I had left, but I’m still really grateful to him. It confirmed what I had been seeing as the market rate and let me know I wasn’t being crazy to expect it.

  34. Phoebe*

    I’ve been here before – I once found out I was paid $8,000 less than a male coworker who started on the same day as me doing the same job but with less overall career experience than me. This organisation didn’t have a performance-based pay system nor even real performance reviews (we were all meant to have the same automatic yearly increments), so there was clearly a deliberate departure of process somewhere that led to the pay discrepancy. I raised it with my senior manager along the lines Alison suggested but was completely rebuffed and then became a target for him. The senior manager even blamed it on a manager lower down the chain than him who had no influence on salary. After that the senior manager started doing things like casually coming up to me in the lunch room pretending he wanted to chit chat and then suddenly giving me critical work feedback in front of other staff and stopped recommending me for development opportunities.

    The male coworker who shared his salary with me shared his salary with me had offered to support me in the meeting but pretty swiftly withdrew that offer and he and the other men in the role (there were eight men and just me and one other woman) were pretty frosty after that.

    I did take this up with my union and now looking back on it, having worked with much better unions, they really didn’t give me the support they should have. Thankfully I’m out of that toxic job now and am working somewhere much better, but I did want to point out that raising these issues doesn’t always go well.

  35. Christine*

    My husband (a symphony musician) and I (a college instructor) both work under union contracts. Many years ago, a woman he worked with found out that the men were paid more than the women. She took it to the union and the disparity was eliminated under threat of a lawsuit.
    My salary is based on a publicly available table of rates determined by degrees held and years employed.
    The clarity is welcome. Unions rock!

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