Hey Boss, Is Being a Woman Holding Me Back?

I have a confession to make: I’ve always worried about being underpaid.

This concern has been present whether working for a supportive company or fast food joints. Why? Because I’m a woman aware of the U.S. wage statistics that say there’s a good chance I am being paid less for my work than men in similar employment situations. On a national average, women earn 73 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the Pew Research Center’s April data release, called “The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay.” The study considers 2015 U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data and concludes it would take an extra 44 days of work for women to earn what men did that year.

Once you look at the racial breakdown of the gender wage gap, it becomes clear that some women are suffering more than others. Asian women earn 87 cents for every dollar a white man earns; for white women it’s 82 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile, black women earn 65 cents and Hispanic women earn 58 cents, according to Pew.

I’ve often been at a loss as to how to investigate how the gender wage gap applies to me. To assume I am being treated unfairly seems cynical, but, when looking at the numbers, to trust that I am not feels foolish. No one wants to believe they’re being unfairly targeted.

So, I asked my boss.

Discussing how sexism affects my pay — with my boss — was a terrifying prospect. But asking tough questions is a big part of being a journalist, so I nervously proposed this column to Jeff Good, executive editor of the Advocate, Daily Hampshire Gazette, and Greenfield Recorder. He asked if I felt like a victim of the gender pay gap. I told him that I didn’t think so, but that I also wondered if I was just being naive.

My anxieties about being a working woman flooded my head and I began to desperately wish that I could go back in time and not have started this talk. I remembered the wisdom every young girl receives from a trusted female in her life: A woman has to be twice as good as a man to be considered equal. I wondered: Am I being too pushy? Am I being a bitch? I need to sit up straight to appear larger/stronger. Is this outfit work-appropriate enough? Is my visible nervousness making me seem like less of a leader? Am I being too emotional? As a working mother, am I spending enough time on the job? Does talking about gender make me less of a team player? Can I afford to make one slip?

Good and I spoke for the next 15 minutes or so about how he and other executives at Newspapers of New England (the Advocate’s parent company) set wages, including which elements are considered when setting compensation. Those elements include experience, special skills, and how many people an editor supervises.

Pay equity isn’t purely up to the good (or ill) will of employers. Massachusetts’ equal pay laws are decent compared to the rest of the nation and on July 1, 2018, they’re going to get even better. The state legislation, An Act to Establish Pay Equity, enjoyed bipartisan support and promotes salary transparency by breaking down barriers that kept employees from discussing their salaries with each other and restricted employers from asking candidates about salary history. It also gives companies that conduct salary reviews to root out pay inequities the standing to deflect legal claims of discrimination.

From my experience, talking about the gender wage gap really helped. After speaking with Good and learning more about how my company makes its wage decisions and its plan for wage parity, my mind was put at ease in a way I have not felt before. Understanding how my company makes compensation decisions, having a face-to-face about my concerns, and getting my questions answered made me feel less like there are unknown factors influencing my work value. I know now that the gender wage gap isn’t holding me back.

Conversations between employees and employers about the wage gap would likely relieve a lot of women who are anxious about their value within a company. So, working women, I’m suggesting you approach your employers about it. We have the right to know if we’re being discriminated against.

There are also ways we can all work toward closing the gender pay gap. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, came up with a strategy to close the gap in 2015 that is damn inspiring. The approach rests on the theory that for women’s wages to rise, all wages must rise. A boost for women alone won’t be enough, suggests the report, “Closing the pay gap and beyond.”

Stagnant wages are holding women as well as men back from moving more quickly toward pay equity. The institute says a shift in working values is necessary, too. Employers should strive for giving workers opportunity to establish work-life balances, the report states, and laws should provide for paid family leave, stronger collective bargaining, and a raise in the minimum wage to aid all workers and close the gap. Fighting for these initiatives helps women; it helps everyone.

To bring more transparency to the gender wage gap, the Advocate is working on a story analyzing how the disparity impacts women and families and what local people are doing about it. We’d be thrilled to hear from any working woman who wants to share her story. Let me hear it at editor@valleyadvocate.com or send us a message through Facebook.

Kristin Palpini

Author: Kristin Palpini

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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