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 salary.com 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 salary.com so I was happy with what I made.

Then one of the guys said he posted his salary on glassdoor.com 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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21 thoughts on “The Consequences of Unfair Pay

  1. I love reading your articles because they give both sides of the coin. I am an HR Manager and yes, I have seen my fair share of pay inequality. But its not always about gender or any kind of discrimination for that matter. Mergers, acquisitions, transfers, promotions….its hard to keep it all fair and balanced every time! Thank you for always making those points for us HR people! Keep ’em coming!

  2. Having worked as a generalist for over fifteen years, I am now in a compensation specialist role. I’m learning more than I ever knew but also reinforcing a lot of what I did know.
    First, I would be careful when using sites like salary.com and glassdoor.com. Not because they aren’t useful but because they are aggregators of data from widely disparate sources. As an example, salary.com normally has to be adjusted down about 10% for my area. Other areas, it may need to be adjusted up. It just really depends.
    Secondly, what is the motive for the OP’s co-worker to post his salary on glassdoor? It seems kind of strange that this one individual would post it . . . is there something more (read: yes, but I would like to know what). Keep in mind, his motives may not be altruistic. Plus keep in mind that not everything on the Internet is true.
    Third, just because two people are in the same job does not mean that have to be paid the same. There are a variety of reasons, many of which may have nothing to do with gender or age.
    Fourth, I think it is a good idea to inquire, delicately, into your pay, what went into it, and how it could be brought up. But when I say delicately, I mean, watch for visual clues, stay as unemotional as you can, and go with as many facts as you can; including data from salary.com and glassdoor.com. Despite what I said above, taking this data with you will put them on their guard and will likely prompt a deeper dive into the issue. This tells them, “Oh, she’s researching it, maybe we should, too, just to be sure.” Again, though, delicately because you don’t want to show them that your only interest is more money. You like your job, the company, co-workers, etc., but due to circumstances, you wanted to follow up on the pay issue, especially that one of your coworkers posted it.
    As I type this, I am thinking a lot of things and it seems like it is contradictory. This can be a convoluted process. The idea is to stay calm, keep your wits about you, and walk through the process. As an engineer, your forte is not pay, so ask them to help you understand what the deciding factors were. $100K could be an outlier (and based on your salary, I suspect it is). On the other hand, it may not, your salary could be an outlier.
    Please keep us updated. This helps all of us learn and grow. Good luck!

    1. Glassdoor is a good thing. If everyone uses it to post salaries, it allows people looking at specific companies (men and women) the opportunity to negotiate based on salary for titles at that company. I am not referring to a market area, or an industry like you seem to be referring to, but salaries posted with titles for a specific company. That information is very useful for people negotiating a new job and would eliminate some of the low-ball offers that mostly women tend to get.

  3. Well, maybe looking for a job at another company helps her to know if she was underpaid. If the offers match whats she’s making now, then it’s ok. If not, does it really matter of she’s undervalued because she’s a woman or if her company undervalues all their workers?

    Anyway, sadly in software she has reasons to think she was undervalued.

  4. OP already had the salary talk. They are not going to adjust again. Its the way it is. Men can continuously ask for raises every year without consequence, but women ask once and its remembered negatively. It is also remembered as ‘I gave 9k more already’. Even if the 9k more was 3 years ago, you are forever stained with asking. You only get one chance. Sorry OP, but you’ll need to just keep job-hunting to boost your salary. And you’ll need to hop every year for awhile until you are even with male counterparts, because your salary history will work against you as recruiters tend to want to place you barely above your current salary not get you the highest salary.

    My own job – I asked too many questions about benefits and only negotiated 3 days more PTO not salary tho I knew it was less than market value since asking for multiple things is a negative for women when it comes to negotiating. I didn’t expect them to go up, but figured I could get more PTO. My bosses made a comment about me being annoying during the process. The benefits sheet was incomplete, I asked for the info and they kept sending me the wrong info or incomplete info. Asking becomes a negative even if you are not being contentious about it.

    1. I don’t understand. If men and women are doing equal work but a company is paying women 80k and men 100k, why on earth would the company hire any men at all? If there’s one thing we know about businesses, it’s that they want to save money. Seems like they would hire all – or mostly – women.

      Even assuming the business was willing to waste millions of dollars a year paying men 25% more than women, such bizarre behavior would significantly raise the company’s costs – which would put it at a major competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. All it would take would be for one competitor out there to realize it could drastically reduce labor costs by hiring all or mostly women, and it would effectively force all of the companies competing in the same market to follow suit.

      So, to recap, the social justice theory seems to be that men run the companies, so they hire other men and pay them way more than women – wasting huge amounts of the company’s money, for what goal again…? Just because they’re mean? And somehow the businesses that engage in this irrational behavior don’t go bankrupt?

      1. I don’t think they pay women less to be mean. They pay them less because they can. They can’t get away with it for most men, but they still want to hire men over women too. Women have been systematically shown they are not worth more. So yeah. This is life. Even if you are a woman without kids to influence being paid less for the same job, same exp, and same company, you are still being paid less as a woman. When women negotiate they say no, or the company walks away. When men negotiate they get yes a lot more often and sometimes offered even more.

  5. Do you think he’s telling the truth on Glassdoor? It’s hard to say. Either way, bringing that information to their attention could be enlightening. The awful part is this is a problem everywhere. How do you know if they’re paying you fairly? I can’t figure it out.

    1. I agree, it seems he had a reason to post it and then mention it to the original poster. Maybe he heard she got a raise and wanted her to believe he was making so much more than her?

  6. Any employee who feels grossly underpaid should apply elsewhere to find out how true that is. An employer is not obligated to pay “the market average” or anything pinned to it. Another employer would gladly plus the letter-writer by $15-$20k if that is what the market will bear. Glassdoor is one data point among many. I have never asked for a raise in any job – a good employer stays on top of that, or I can move along. I’ve done pretty well.

  7. I think what puzzles me is that the person thinks it’s ok to go around to co-workers and ask what they earn. Seriously?
    Why/where would that be acceptable? That makes me think that this person is a PIA. And, soon there will be a complaint made to HR that the person is harrassing them. While I think your suggestion of going to HR and asking for a review is valid, I have to believe if you are that unhappy and it’s causing enough stress to keep you up at night….you need to move on!
    And, do you honestly think that someone would go on glassdoor and be truthful????

    1. It is totally OK to ask co-workers what they earn. That level of transparency benefits employees. I would tell my co-workers what I make. My friends all know – we compare salaries. Why would you not want that information?

      ($86K, marketing, large midwestern city)(down from $101K plus 20% bonus in job where I was laid off a few years ago – so yeah – I want to know.)

  8. Great post !

    I do have a question to Suzanne or anyone out there….

    The companies offer a wage to a person and it is based off whatever… exp, education, and so forth. ( I am just talking generally speaking ).

    If there is a gender pay gap, like.. XYZ company just flat out pays females less no matter what period, how is that being kept a secret and are females deciding those salaries or males?

    Like Evil said, she doubts at least in this case the OP was being paid less because she was a female.

    So, are males or females HR/Hiring managers literally thinkng ” I am going to pay Matilda LESS and Gavin more soley on gender. ( based on equal background)

    You’d think there would be tons of people out there even without disclosing name and company that would be saying, we do purposly offer less to women.

    I am not sure I asled my question well so please forgive me if it sounds screwy.

    1. The reason the gender-pay gap is so challenging is that it’s not overt. I am confident that it exists (there is tonnes of research) but it’s doesn’t happen overtly or how you describe. Hiring managers aren’t thinking “oh! She’s a woman, she’s worth $10,000 less” rather is a combination of unconscious bias (unknowingly believing women are worth less), women not negotiating, women being punished for negotiating (once again, that unconscious view that it’s not “ladylike” to negotiate), avoiding hiring women because they won’t fit the “company culture” and about a million other things.

      Very little is overt, obvious sexism which makes the problem so hard to spot and so hard to solve.

  9. The initial wage negotiation can be very intimidating. I’ve been there, just like many others. I was so eager to leave my last job, that I sat down and looked over our household budget and came up with the MINIMUM $/hour that I would need to make for bills to get paid:/ I cannot believe that this was the figure that I initially asked for when I came into THIS job. To tell you the truth, I was so beaten down by my last job that I probably didn’t think I was worth more, even when the new prospective boss said “Really? You don’t think you’re worth more than that?” I meakly said “That’s all I need” He did not argue. But when I got my first paycheque my wage was quite a bit more than what I had asked for!

    Even in my own personal business, when I do contract work, I struggle with taking a job ‘just to have it’ for less money, or give the client a firm $/hour amount and risk losing the job. (However, I have learned the lesson the hard way that the clients who are willing to dicker on my fee are usually the ones who will be nit-picky all the way through the job as well, so it is not always a total loss to lose the job).

    I don’t know if it’s just a woman thing, or also a man thing, but there are times when we don’t feel worthy, and we take what we can get. I guess it is worth to consider your current/last wage, along with research regarding similar positions from glassdoor.com or even just by looking into other businesses in your area. You can take this information with you to the interview and compare it to the job offer and negotiate from there. Settling on an offer that is too low can be shooting yourself in the foot later on when you ask to be paid what you are sure you are worth.

    It is sad that HR/Management let such a wage difference happen when this newer person was hired without first trying to make a better balance amongst senior staff. But perhaps this guy has a golden smile that the company feels they will profit from, so they paid him more. It really isn’t the OP’s business to inquire about. But if she’s the only woman amongst 29 men with the same qualifications and varying seniority, and they are all making $100k/year and she is only making $79K, then bringing it up to HR as gender discrimination may help bring her up to par. Otherwise, I agree that if she is in the average wage of her peers and she is losing sleep over this and no longer has trust in her employer, it is time to move on to a different job.

  10. Unless I missed it, the OP references many things that should contribute to their pay except performance. I think it’s important for the OP to make sure women aren’t being paid less due to their gender but for a senior software engineer position there is a real opportunity to be a rock star.

  11. I’m a tech executive and I’ll let you in on a secret… I will pay someone whatever I can get away with.

    I don’t care if they’re female or male. I have a general range (budget) of what I can pay. If the person asks in the lower range, I’m going to keep it around there. I’m only semi-evil because if the person is really that skilled, I’ll bump it to account for market/experience value.

    In my decade + experience of hiring lots of folks, a majority of females low-ball themselves or come across and not very assertive. HOWEVER, if a male appears “weak” or goes in low, I will see that as an opportunity to get a bargain. A previous poster was correct in that the business wants labor at the lowest reasonable cost. I’ve worked in MAJOR boys clubs and they care more about $$$ than purposefully paying women less. Again, you appear weak, we will see it as an opportunity to save money. Period.

    My advice: Go for what you want. As Evil HR Lady said many times, the lower you start the smaller the increases because it almost always gets increased by a percentage rather than a straight dollar amount.

    OP: Look for work somewhere else.

    1. Yes. This.

      It’s very difficult though, to ask for more when you’re not confident and lots of women lack confidence when they ask for salaries. Some men are too, though. As you said, its’not always the women.

  12. “My first response was to start job hunting and to do most of my job hunting… I feel like I’m running away instead of working to solve a problem…”

    I don’t consider “voting with your feet” to be running away. You accomplish two things. First, you find a job you like for the pay you want, and secondly, you send a message to your former employer indicating what happens when they underpay someone.

    This is not “just a problem that women face”. It’s quite common for people on the same team, supposedly doing the same job, to be paid different salaries.

  13. I work at this hospital in pa, I work elbow to elbow with union electricians, masons, hvac, etc..etc.. I myself am a painter at the same public hospital, now do i get a different pay because it is a public hospital that tax payers pay for? My regular pay is 16$ an hour and when I worked at hospital it was still 16$ an hour, everyone I spoke to said i should be receive scale rate pay due to its a hospital,is this true or is my boss trying to get over on his own employees. ie. We are a comerical and residential small business about 12 guys tops..

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