When Ephrat Bitton completed her Ph.D. in industrial engineering and operations research at the University of California at Berkeley, she applied for a job as an algorithms specialist at a small technology company in San Francisco. Bitton got the job—though she only accepted the offer after successfully negotiating a 20 percent higher annual salary—and started in her role as “project manager” soon after, working as a cross between a software engineer and data specialist and managing a team of seven engineers and a handful of interns.

After a year, one of Bitton’s male interns, who was finishing his bachelor’s degree, was given an offer to join the company as a full-time, entry-level engineer. “He showed me his offer to get my opinion, which is how I found out that he was offered the same base salary I was getting, plus quarterly bonuses that could amount to an additional 15 percent of his annual salary,” says Bitton.
“I was outraged. Then I found out my male colleagues were getting raises just about every quarter, whereas I’d received none.”

Bitton gave notice shortly after, citing what she’d learned about what her male counterparts—and underlings—were earning. Though her managers asked her to stay and offered a 30 percent raise and sizable bonus on the spot, she refused. “I knew I deserved to be treated better,” says Bitton, who joined a tech startup called FutureAdvisor.com shortly after leaving her other company, and she says she feels much more valued as a team member and knows she’s being compensated fairly.

The pay discrimination Bitton dealt with—and the lack of knowledge on her part that it even existed at all—is much more common than you might think.

Carol Sankar was working as a paralegal in a New York City law firm when she spotted a billing error one day: The company was billing clients $120 an hour for male paralegals and $90 an hour for the female paralegals, even though Sankar and her female co-workers had more years of experience than some of their male counterparts.

Michelle Geromel was a consultant for one of the Big Four firms in Orange County, Calif., when she discovered she was being paid less than her male counterparts with less education and experience. When she and a group of female colleagues consulted human resources about the issue, the entire team received pay raises—including the men in her group. “Within a few weeks, we all knew that once again, the men were being paid more than the women—every single one of them,” says Geromel. “I stayed with the firm for 13 years and discovered by the time I left that my male counterparts, who were not in any way doing different work than me, were receiving $30,000 to $40,000 more a year than me.”

With women graduating college in record numbers and scoring bigger and better jobs than ever before, many of us are entering the workforce with the assumption that the glass ceiling has been shattered and the old boys’ clubs officially busted up. However, stories like these—as well as the most recent research and statistics—suggest otherwise.


The Sobering Statistics

The statistics are downright depressing considering how many women are taking Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and “leaning in” lately: According to the census data analyzed by the National Committee on Pay Equity, women on average earned 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men holding the same full-time, year-round job. What’s more, even though more women than men are going to college, the wage gap starts immediately, with millennial women making 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers in their first year out of college, according to a report from the American Association of University Women. For women of color, the news is even worse.

In New Jersey, African-American women make 58.3 cents for every $1 white, non-Hispanic males earn, giving the state the No. 7 ranking of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) report on the 10 worst states for African-American women’s wage equity. New Jersey comes in at No. 1 in the NWLC’s report on the 10 worst states for Hispanic women’s wage equity, with Hispanic women making a mere 43.1 cents to the male dollar.

Even more disturbing is how little these numbers have changed in the last five years, despite legislation aimed at improving pay equity. “I don’t see a lot happening right now that’s promising when it comes to combating pay inequities,” says Christine Todd Whitman, who served as New Jersey’s 50th governor from 1994 to 2001. “I just don’t see a lot of positive action for women.”

Michele Leber, chair of the National Committee on Pay Equity, agrees, noting that while the government has tried to do something about pay inequity for a long time, and January marked the five-year anniversary of President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the overall statistics have hardly changed this century. “The fact is, women and men are doing the same work and are still paid differently,” says Leber.


Why Women Are Getting Shortchanged

There are reasons for this, say experts. For starters, despite more women than men going to college, we are still entering fields with lower earning potentials in greater numbers than the jobs educated men pursue, says Leber. (Think teachers and nurses versus surgeons and engineers.) Many women also leave the workplace to have babies, and lose work time—and pay advancement—as a result. Due to a full plate of commitments at home, many women also don’t gun for the bigger, higher-paying roles in their companies, or they take part-time—and therefore lower-paying—work so they can juggle the full-time job of raising children and running a household. Also, women often don’t negotiate as well as their male counterparts during the hiring process, leading to slightly lower starting salaries that accumulate and become significantly lower annual incomes over time.

Right now, the economy is also playing a role in many women avoiding issues of pay inequity—and it’s certainly diminishing a woman’s bargaining power when she is offered a job. “The trouble is that you have a lot of people coming into the work force who aren’t taking on the battle because they are just happy to have a job,” says Whitman. “With the economy what it is, the job means more than the fight right now.” And women who do say something are being retaliated against in record numbers.

So it’s no surprise that overall, many women are keeping quiet even when they know they’re being paid less than a male colleague for the same work. “A lot of women operate under myths that an employer is able to pay you whatever they want and can get rid of you if you challenge them on pay inequity,” says Cathleen Scott, Esq., a lawyer who’s board certified in labor and employment law. “Many women think they won’t recover anything if they get fired. But there are laws in place to help protect you from that kind of retaliation—and based on the information you’ve learned, you might have a duty to go to human resources.”


Take Action

Curious about how your pay stacks up to your male colleagues’ salaries? It can be especially difficult to get that information. Research shows nearly half of all workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged to share wage information with each other, so you’ll want to consult your company handbook to find out what your company’s specific policies are on the topic, suggests Scott. If you already know you’re making less than a male counterpart who has the same job duties and same experience as you, Whitman, Leber, and other leading experts on pay inequity urge women to consider saying something.

“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 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’s what 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.”

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