Making It in Corporate Series: Gender Bias Hits Our Pay – Unless We Talk About It
For more than half of my career, I didn’t realize that I was weaving my way through a world saddled with systemic gender-based discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace.
Today, while progress in this area is far slower than we’d have hoped, we have language to describe what is going on. And language, as we all know, shapes reality. We know how to articulate and empirically prove the gender pay gap. We know of unconscious biases and developed training programs to help leaders uncover theirs. We have robust data, proving that organizations with gender parity deliver better results.
When I had my start, there were no role models questioning the absence of these things. It was the norm to not ask about equal pay, or fight unconscious bias, or demand gender parity. And when I found myself to be the only woman in meetings, my boss signaled surprise whenever I opened my mouth, clearly thinking, “She can speak!”. I didn’t realize how truly unevolved meetings between men and women could be.
But there comes a time in any career journey that wakes you up. For me it was when I noticed that a male colleague with the same level of experience — a senior manager, the same title and grade, and the same performance review had a different lifestyle than I had. I asked him how he did it. In came the shocker: despite our similarities, his salary was 33% higher. More than thirty percent. That is not a small discrepancy. That is an obvious pay disparity, one he was as surprised to find as I was.
Not knowing exactly how this conversation would pan out, I went to my manager at the time and asked for an explanation. There is an endless array of possible excuses in any corporate playbook, and his answer was “Well, your current salary is based on your previous salaries.” Not good enough (though he was right in a way, the most important salary negotiation you will ever lead is the one you have when joining a new company!).
I decided to plough ahead and talk to his boss, our senior VP. Our VP’s reaction was possibly worse, as he did not look to resolve this disparity, but find the mole that exposed it in the first place. “How do you know about your colleague’s salary?!” he asked, surprised that such a topic was discussed among his employees. Followed by: “Well, he has kids and you don’t so that’s why.” It would be tactless to dwell on this point, but I imagine you have a pretty good idea of my predicament.
I began to fight for an improvement in my salary. And it kickstarted a series of increases and promotions. My next performance review came with a substantial bump, then I did an internal move with a grade increase and another salary bump. And then another. They listened the first time, because how could they not? My performance was stellar, and my momentum didn’t slow.
Today there’s greater gender balance than ever, ERGs, and even recognition for this company’s efforts. In the corporate world in general, imbalances and biases still persist, and cultural changes can be painfully slow. But I see movement. And sometimes without meaning to, simply speaking up for what is right can contribute to a chain reaction making the lives of the next generation of leaders fairer and more equitable.
I hope this personal reflection could give you a bit of courage if you find yourself in a tight spot, or at least a chuckle if you’re banging your head against similar glass ceilings. Asking for equal pay is not robbing your employer. Be brave and speak up. Prepare your arguments and do your research. As an employee of any organization, you don’t always have full control over what happens to you next. But you can always stay true to yourself, know your worth, and at the bare minimum ask why an imbalance you spotted exists. And who knows, sometimes even an adverse reaction can transform into what you wanted over time.
You are the steward of your career — don’t let bias trump your worth!
PS: Systemic barriers to advances at work are not restricted to the female population. This is a wide and varied barrier that can snag anyone. Be there for one another and help others find their voice in speaking up against all forms of discrimination as you notice them.
Welcome to the “Making In and Out of Corporate” Series
Over the past few years, I have shared resources and insights from my life as a professional coach with you. Leadership Coaching, Teams Coaching, Career Development, tales of the power of neuroplasticity and the importance of rest and connectedness.
Whether you are following Bogliolo Coaching & Consulting on LinkedIn or are a reader of The Voice, the last years have been about supporting you in finding your VOICE. The feedback I have received from many of you is more than reason enough to keep going and share more content and advice of the same kind.
But it is time to add something new. This article is the beginning of a new series I am starting in order to take stock of my own career, of how my voice came to be. This series will take you through the various stations I have passed through to become the person writing this article today. Including their challenges, their opportunities, their confusions, their frustrations, their triumphs.
We will deal with topics you have come to know me by: Diversity, equity and inclusion. Mental wellbeing. Leadership. The list goes on. Thanks for reading what ultimately is designed to help you find your voice, take the mic, and speak up for yourself!
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Becoming a Transparent Leader to Achieve Wonders →