The law forbade pay discrimination based on sex beginning in 1963, but women still make less money—on average, 84 cents for every dollar men make, says Pew Research Center. Sure, that’s progress: Women made 59 cents for a man’s dollar when the law was enacted. Progress to the tune of not even a half penny a year, which means we won’t catch up in this century. And for certain minority groups, it’s even worse—Black women make 63% of what White men make, and Hispanic women only 57%.
Law can’t stop discrimination, especially if women remain in the dark about the discrepancies in their paychecks. Which is where we all come in, and it’s gonna require some uncomfortable conversation. That taboo over talking about money isn’t working in our favor. Women who don’t know they’re being underpaid can’t put the law to work for them.
So what’s possible? Taylor Hunter and Aaron Williamson, employment law attorneys at Kroger, Gardis & Regas, LLP, offered thoughts about addressing the salary discrimination from both sides of the paycheck.
Ask the “impolite question”
“Most employees just don’t know there’s an issue,” Hunter said. Which has a lot to do with people not wanting to talk about money.
“The old model of salary being an impolite question is how a lot of issues are perpetuated,” Williamson said. “Being open with your colleagues, having conversations about pay and identifying discrepancies—these are the only way forward.”
The conversations may feel awkward (and could certainly reveal information you didn’t want to have), but they’re your right: “Labor laws protect employees who ask their co-workers about pay,” Hunter said. “You don’t have to fear you’re going to be retaliated against or terminated by employer.”
And if you find out you’re making less than a male colleague? Having one example of earning less is all you need to take action, but only if you can show that you have similar responsibilities, experience, and training.
“Could you assume that person’s role if they were out all of a sudden?” Williamson asks. “That’s one of the big questions. If yes, the law looks for a ‘permissible difference’ that justifies the pay discrepancy—any reason other sex, basically, which might mean skill, training, or education, for example.”
If you’re not seeing those factors, a second difficult conversation is warranted. Sit down with your manager to point out the discrepancy and understand what it would take for you to close that gap.
“That way you can find out whether your employer can articulate the difference in pay and whether they’re even aware of it,” Williamson said. “If they look baffled, that’s your sign to inquire further.”
Advocate for yourself
Entrenched pay gaps mean a lot of employers don’t even realize they’re being unfair, and many are working to level out pay.
“A lot of the organizations I work with—now more than ever—are addressing the wage gap through planned initiatives,” Hunter said. “Many don’t recognize there’s a historical issue or the depth of that issue until they get in and do a self-assessment. Then they can be intentional about addressing pay structures.”
Williamson stresses that part of these audits, which he recommends employers conduct regularly, is not just to note the differences in pay but to assess where they originated: “If you know there’s a difference and can’t articulate why, it may just be historical, and that means it’s time for corrective action.”
You can find out whether your employer is conducting salary audits or even suggest they do, but your more immediate way toward fair pay is to go after it—especially when you’re negotiating a raise or salary for a new job. Now isn’t the time to be soft in salary talks.
“It’s an employee’s world right now,” Hunter pointed out. “In this market, being able to leave and get a pay increase is likely.”
Making more money has to start with you, however: “You’re your best advocate,” Hunter said. “You have to go have the tough meeting and really put out there what your experience and credentials support. You’re not typically going to see an employer invite you in and give you a pay raise out of nowhere.”
Do the research
Before any money-related conversation, getting as much information as you can ahead of time is critical.
“The trend is for employers to include pay scales in the job description, which gives you a starting point,” Williamson said. “GlassDoor or something similar will also give you a sense of how much a job pays as well as insight from other employees.”
The most common starting point for a salary discussion—what you’re making now—is a moot point, Williamson said: “Your previous salary has almost no bearing on what position under discussion pays. Instead, start with how much the last person in the position made.”
And, as you’ve no doubt heard before, resist being the first to give a range. It generally leads to cheating yourself out of money on the table.
“Go in there as aggressive as possible,” Hunter said. “The danger is that you bid against yourself. They have a floor for the salary, and you’re going to want to be aggressive and meet in the middle rather than end up on the low end of their range.”
Preparing for that conversation should include talking to other employees in similar roles.
“And don’t just reach out to the women,” Hunter stressed.
Get help if you need it
If you have reason to believe your employer isn’t paying you fairly, you can have an initial call with an attorney without paying a fee—and you can probably find legal help that doesn’t require a fee until you get a settlement.
“Make the call and figure out whether your situation is something they can help with,” Williamson said. “Most attorneys will do this work on a contingency basis. But if you make a few calls and hear there’s not enough for those attorneys to take on your case, that might be a signal of a different nature.”
Equal Pay Day is March 13. Maybe celebrate this year by asking every man at your workplace how much money he makes.
Traci Cumbay is a contributor for Indy Maven.