The Consequences of Unfair Pay

by Evil HR Lady on April 22, 2015

I am the only female software engineer in a department of thirty.

When I started, two years ago, my salary was $70k, which I accepted because I was coming off a medical leave. I went to my boss and explained that I had worked there loyally for two years without raises understanding that my medical issues might make them loath to pay me more. Then I pointed out everything I accomplished, how well I was working, and most importantly that for someone with my experience says 74k was in the bottom 10% of the salary for my job. I explained I needed to make something closer to the middle pay grade at the very least.

My boss went to the CEO and negotiations continued. I asked if I was getting paid the same as my peers and my boss said he didn’t know but HR made sure everything was taken care of. I went to HR and asked if they were watching for gender pay inequality. I was told they would follow up with me which they never did. What did happen was I was offered a little over 79k salary.

I thought that 79k likely brought me close to the salary of people doing the same job as me. Others with the same experience as me were made team leads and as my friends I knew they made much more than me but didn’t care as I saw the difference in responsibility. It also brought me onto the bell curve as seen on so I was happy with what I made.

Then one of the guys said he posted his salary on because there were no postings for people with our title. I went and saw he made 100k a year.

To compare: he has 7 years experience and I have 11, he has been at the company for 1 year and I have been there 3, he has a bachelor of arts in liberal arts and I have a bachelor of science in computer science. he is 5 years young than I am, the work we do is equivalent, we both work on committees together that work to improve the company, our responsibilities are the same and we are both labelled sr software engineer.

There are a lot of things that can be said about the past and how it affects how I’m viewed now but at this point in this moment I am a respected contributor with a good track record who is getting paid significantly less than at least one peer. I talked to one of the team leads who is a good friend and he said my pay was in the middle range prior to the raise season but most everyone was bumped up significantly above that. He suggested that next raise season I tell them what he told them “just pay me what you think I’m worth.” I had no reaction for him. No words.

It keeps me up at night. My first response was to start job hunting and to do most of my job hunting in union shops. Yet the injustice of it still hurts. I feel like I’m running away instead of working to solve a problem, not just a problem that women face but also the problem of how women software engineers are treated. And, if I don’t figure out what went wrong I fear that I will forever be undervalued.

The whole thing exhausts me and yet I can’t sleep. It’s past 2am and I can’t sleep. I like my job. I feel like I contribute a lot and would like to continue doing so. I find I’m bitter over how undervalued I am.

Is there a way to fix this? Any way to mend ways with my current job? Ways to avoid the issue in future jobs? Articles all tell me to be a tough negotiator but I am. They say women get paid less when they have kids but I didn’t. They say women get paid less because they take less technical jobs but I haven’t.

I want to ask all the other guys what they are making. I want to cluster us into graphs of education type/level, years experience, and pay range. I want to find out that this one guy was an anomaly and everything is fine. I worry that even if I find out everything is fine that I will be poking a bees nest.

First, I want to point this out as a cautionary tale to managers who think they can save money by underpaying people–male or female. When the employee finds out, the trust and loyalty you’ve “earned” will be gone. If it turns out that this woman is making $20k less than her male peers, even giving her a raise to match will not undo the damage. That damage is DONE.

Okay, second, let’s deal with the problem at hand. I suspect that with 30 people in the department, the salaries are spread out. I’m willing to make a bet that it’s not 30 men making $100k and the lone female making $79k. I bet that there are lots of variations and there may even be people making less. Different salaries alone do not indicate illegal pay discrimination.

And that’s something to consider. When you asked HR about your salary, even though they didn’t get back to you directly, they hopefully took the time to look into it. You don’t say what size of company you work for, but when I did HR data work, we’d run analysis on pay all the time, looking for problems–and I wasn’t even in compensation. I’m sure compensation did things at a much more detailed level than we did. I would flag things that looked off and hand it over to the HR business partner to fix. So, if you are in a large company, there is probably a team that is doing that, which means that it’s unlikely that they said, “Oh, Jane is a woman so it’s okay to pay her $20k less than everyone else.”

But, if there isn’t a competent HR team, your salary may truly stink. Women do ask for less. Even I have made the mistake of asking for less–recently. Here’s a story for my own embarrassment. I got contacted by a little startup in the HR space and they asked me to write something for them. “How much?” I said. “3 Articles a month at $X,” they said. I said yes without hesitating. I had just lost my contract with CBS and I wanted money so I said yes, even though $X was less than what I normally charge for a job like that. It wasn’t a lot less, but it was less.

Then she emailed me the contract. I opened the file and discovered that the contract had been made out for $Y which was exactly what I normally charge for work like that, and the wrong name was there–it was a male HR blogger, who I happen to know.” I emailed her back and said, “I’m just as good as [male HR blogger] so I’ll take $Y.” She suddenly said they had funding problems and disappeared. I emailed [male HR blogger] and asked how he came to that total. He said, “I asked for two and a half times $Y and she negotiated me down to here.” I was like, “I’m an idiot. I was so desperate for work that I shot myself in the foot.” She never, ever got back to me, but I’ve gotten numerous contracts since then for $Y and I no longer take less than I want for a project.

Was she discriminating against me because I was female? I don’t think so. Would she have gone up to $Y if I’d asked in the beginning? Probably. Was the relationship permanently damaged anyway? Absolutely. I made a mistake and she made a mistake and she ran like the wind. (Seriously, “oops! Uhh, no funding! Uhhh, I’ll let you know!” then silence.)

I made a huge mistake and I suspect you did too. I was colored by my recent contract loss and you were reacting based on your medical leave. We both were like, “I need a job!” Now, if you had made the case at the beginning that the salary they were offering was super low and you deserved the $79k to begin with, with regular raises you’d be making in the mid to high $80s which would mean your salary differences weren’t all that great.

(I know $10k seems like a lot, but there are plenty of reasons to have that big of a difference when you’re in the $100k range.)

So, don’t go in with the idea that you’re being discriminated against because of gender. But, do go in. You can even have the Glass door printout in your hand, and say, “Someone with the identical title to me is making $20k more than I am. Can we talk about  my salary?”

And there is nothing wrong with talking with your co-workers about their salaries, but most won’t want to tell you because we don’t talk about salaries in America. It’s not culturally appropriate. I think it should be. I’d love it if there weren’t secrets and lies involved in salaries. But it’s culturally how we do it and management doesn’t want to change those secrets because they benefit. But, this is absolutely something I’d bring up. And let’s face it–if this guy is an anomaly, the other 29 people in the department are going to be ticked as well.


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