Intellectually, we all know the way to effect change is to speak out, but when it comes at personal risk, it can be a tougher ask. “I have heard women complain that they’re not being paid the same as their male counterparts, but then they don’t go to their bosses to talk about it,” says Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “More women need to get the message that you can’t just complain privately about this; you’ve got to say something, even though there’s risk in doing so.”
Here are five smart actions you can take experts agree are the best steps to take to minimize that risk when expressing your pay inequity concerns:
Join forces with female colleagues. Take the information you’ve learned to female colleagues who might be in a similar situation as you are. “There’s power in numbers,” says Scott. “Federal law says that when two or more employees band together to affect or change the terms or conditions of their employment, the employer cannot retaliate against those employees,” she says. If you don’t have female colleagues who are willing to pursue the issue with you, at the very least ask for support from your partner, family, or friends. “Saying something about pay inequity is a big leap, and you’ll be in a much better place if you have someone encouraging you. The idea that a big change can take place with just a series of individual movements is naïve,” says Whitman. “It’s often much more efficient if you have people around you saying, ‘We’ll support you on this.’”
Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Before you say something to your manager or bring the issue to HR, you’ll want to make sure there’s a difference in pay for substantially identical work. “A male has to be on the identical job duty as you are to be considered a comparer for claims,” says Scott. “So, take a look at the male employee whose salary you know is higher than yours: Does he have the same level of education, experience, and level of seniority in the company as you do? Because employers are allowed to pay for more education and experience.”
Know what to say to HR. To be protected against retaliation for complaining about pay inequity, you must bring a valid complaint to your manager or HR contact. “The law says that in order to have a claim for retaliation, you have to engage in protected activity, you have to suffer an adverse employment action, and those two things have to happen close in time,” says Scott. “Protected activity is complaining about harassment, discrimination, or pay inequity; it’s not complaining about gossiping, personality conflicts, or about how little your male co-worker does compared to you.” So, before you speak up, have a specific plan about what you’re going to say, be brief, and leave the emotional component out of what you say.
“I always think it’s more productive if you go to HR with the assumption that they’re on your side and will do what they can to help you find a solution,” says Scott. “You might say, ‘I’m concerned this salary information I’ve learned might be accurate and I wonder if you can help me determine what I should do. Can you help me learn how to put myself in the same pay bracket as my male counterpart with substantially identical work?’ This is the language of risk, which gets the attention of managers and human resources.”
Discuss the topic of pay equity with management—especially if you’re a manager. If you’re curious about your company’s pay equity, you might broach the subject with your manager in a non-threatening way. For example, you can mention the most recent statistics and say that they prompted you to think about the issue. Of course, you’ll feel more comfortable doing this if you have a good relationship with your manager; if you don’t have that kind of relationship with your boss, you could say something to a mentor you trust at the company. If you are a manager, you hold a lot of power to effect change in your workplace. At your next managers’ meeting, consider bringing up the topic and requesting a company-wide salary review if you feel there may be pay inequity based on gender.
• Urge your Senator to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. “The single most important thing that could be done to ensure pay equity is to pass this act, which the House passed twice but has lost in the Senate,” says Leber. Check to see where your local officials and congresspeople stand on the issue, and if they’ve sponsored the act. Then, lobby your representatives by mail or even with a personal visit to their local office, and encourage your peers to do the same. “Your representative might not read everything he or she receives, but someone does,” says Whitman. “And it does make a difference. Change may not be immediate, but saying something does make a difference.”