Lady Smarts ‘I made less than my male co-worker—here’s what I did about it’

Like paid leave, equal pay is a hot-button issue in the U.S. And the fight for fair wages gets extra focus on Equal Pay Day every year.

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Ladies share how they fought for equal pay at work. play

Ladies share how they fought for equal pay at work.

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We asked four women to share how they fought for fair wages.

Like paid leave, equal pay is a hot-button issue in the U.S. And the fight for fair wages gets extra focus on Equal Pay Day every year, which marks the date in the calendar year where the average woman’s earnings catch up to that made by the average man in the previous year.

That’s right—it took the average American woman until April 4 (an extra 94 days) to earn what the average American man did in 2016. (Get on track with your weight-loss goals with Women's Health's Look Better Naked DVD!)

But statistics are one thing. What is it actually like to find out that you're making less than a male coworker? We asked four women from different fields to share their stories with us:

"My husband and I compared pay stubs."

“After graduating from college, I worked at a newspaper for a year. My husband graduated a year later, and joined me at the same paper in the same newsroom. We ultimately realized he was getting paid more than me and I had a year more of experience with the same degree—from the same school. We took out the pay stubs and I saw the difference with my own eyes. 

“I was furious and confused. I tried to make sense of it, and together we figured out who had more internships than the other, more awards as a student. We did everything but count all the articles we'd each written in our college and internship careers.

“My husband suggested that I say something. I appreciated that then, and still do to this day. I wasted no time and talked with my managing editor, who hired each of us just about 12 months apart from each other. I wish I could remember the exact words, but nothing stated really substantiated the difference. I did come out of there with a promise that things would be adjusted appropriately—and it was.” —Zerline H., 39

"A male classmate made 18 percent more than I did for the same job."

“After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, I was hired as a laboratory supervisor for the company that I had worked for as a co-op student. For two years in this full-time position, I worked my tail off to become technically proficient and hone my leadership skills.  My hard work was recognized by my boss—each year, raises and merit bonuses accompanied my stellar annual review ratings.  

"So you can imagine the shock I felt when I discovered that a male college classmate of mine was hired as a laboratory supervisor, making significantly (around 18 percent) more than me. I did not have anything against my new colleague at all—I would have given him a positive recommendation had I known he was applying.

However, he did not come into the role with the several years of high-performing experience at the company that I now had. But he would be making several thousand dollars more a year than I was, just starting out.

“I started doing some research. I reviewed my annual performance appraisals. I investigated the HR policies and pay ranges. I got serious about my own pay, as I realized I had been naive about it all.  

“At a meeting with HR, I told the representative that I had been told by word of mouth that this new employee was making significantly more than I was. I asked her to review all of the salaries and performance reviews for my colleagues and me to see if I was being compensated fairly.  

“About a week later, she met with me again and said that she had made the recommendation to management for me to receive a raise based on her research and they agreed. It was not an 18 percent raise, more like 4 or 5 percent, but it still felt like a victory!” —Ash N., 31

"HR accidentally sent me proof of what everyone was making."

“A new employee in the HR department at the company where I worked mistakenly sent me an employee spreadsheet that included each person’s salary, including C-level executives. That’s when I found out the hard way that I was not only underpaid overall, but also paid significantly less than men in the same department doing similar or lesser work. 

"After reviewing the spreadsheet, and comparing myself with others I worked with, I felt despondent. I believed at the time that there was no way for me to change my situation and that perhaps I was working too hard for the money I was making. I wanted to quit.

"I talked with my husband, who had consistently made more than me throughout his career, and his advice was to start building my case and get the conversation started immediately. When I went to my manager to discuss my pay, she did some investigation and confirmed that I really was very low on the scale.

She was able to get me a 10 percent raise that year, which helped a lot, but still left me low on the scale compared to my counterparts.

“I believe the major reason I was low-balled was lack of information. I recall asking the HR recruiter for a good number I should expect from the job, telling her honestly that I didn’t know what to ask for. The number she gave me ended up being on the low end of the range for my job.

“If possible, sit down with people in the industry and ask them to tell you what the going rate is for your role, or use resources such as payscale.com and the Bureau of Labor Statistics so you can go in with the knowledge of what your job is worth. And don’t wait to start a conversation with your manager.

They may not be able to take action right away, but they can keep your salary under consideration when review time rolls around. Be sure to remind them of your accomplishments and how your actions have supported the company’s strategic vision and bottom line.” —Krystal C., 32.

"My friend in the office tipped me off."

“About two years ago, I had referred a man for a job as a doctor at the mental health services agency where I worked. A colleague who does my billing (and his as well) told me he was earning as much as I was. I had been at the agency for 10 years and had asked for a raise for several years, which was denied.

This guy was still in training and came in asking for as much as me, which was given with no qualms. 

“I felt like I was not valued. It had taken me 10 years to reach the hourly pay I was receiving, and someone with far less experience and qualifications was being offered the same. 

“I spoke to my supervisor at the time, who was supportive of me. She suggested I request a meeting with the agency’s leadership. The woman I met with brought up the term 'gender disparity,' which I did not, but it was the elephant in the room. I focused on what skills I had to offer and did not back down on my requests.

“I ended up getting a raise! She mentioned that she couldn't give me a raise if I didn't ask for it. That was not true, since I had been asking for years, but I didn't argue that point and instead just focused on what I wanted.

“In the agency’s defense, I don't think they realized how this whole thing looked, nor were they purposely trying to engage in gender disparity. The guy showed up (recruited by me), asked for a certain amount, and they felt obliged to give it to him. Had I not had a friend who told me about it, I wouldn't have even known. I think women have to be vigilant.” —Anandhi N., 39

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