How To Speak Up Effectively When You Find Out You’re Not Being Paid Fairly

What is the most effective way to speak up when you discover you're not being paid fairly?

Adrienne was shocked when she did a performance review for her male direct report and found out he was making the same salary she was. A veteran of the pharmaceutical industry for over fifteen years, Adrienne was his manager for just six months. This was her first opportunity to do the annual salary review. The fact that she was underpaid upset her and moved her to take action. She reached out to her boss and HR manager but was told that nothing could be done at this time. What was most disconcerting to Adrienne was a comment from the HR manager who confided in her that she already knew Adrienne was not being compensated fairly. The company was aware of this but not willing to do anything to improve her salary.


There has been very little change in the gender gap in the last decade. The most recent research shows women in the United States make $0.80 on the dollar compared to their male counterparts, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research. That gap is wider for Black and Hispanic women, who earn 62.5% and 54.4%, respectively, of the paychecks their male colleagues receive. At this rate, pay parity won’t be achieved until 2059. Though many companies boast improvement in pay equity, a closer look at the facts often reveals how these organizations get around the issue.

Hannah works for a global financial services firm. She’s been with the organization for 18 years and a Director for 11 years. The head of Human Resources sent a memo to everyone earlier this year addressing the topic of pay equity. The memo stated that company only has a 1% gender pay gap. As a result, the company was touted in news media as a forward-thinking company that has no real pay gap. What’s noteworthy, however, is that this information is just about base salary not total compensation. Hannah told me, ‘we are all paid the same base salary according to our titles (VP’s, directors, MD’s), but the biggest piece of compensation here is discretionary pay which is where you see massive gender pay gaps’.

Like Adrienne, Hannah spoke up and asked the head of Human Resources for data around the “true” gender pay gap which would include discretionary pay. She received no response. She then asked the head of the women’s initiative who told her she would look into this immediately. As of this writing, it’s been three weeks since Hannah made the request and she’s heard nothing. Hannah also asked her if there has been any progress on average time to promotion for women at the company. The average time to promotion for men four years while the average time to promotion for women is nine years! Hannah’s comment to me, ‘All of this is just so nauseating and disingenuous and no one seems to care’.

Yet both Adrienne and Hannah spoke up about the inequity. It’s frustrating when your request for fair pay seems to lead nowhere, but we still need to speak up and if we all address this issue, over time, perhaps there will be change. Adrienne said, ‘Nothing will ever change if you don’t speak up.’

What is the most effective way to speak up when you discover you’re not being paid fairly? Try this approach:


Acknowledge your emotions. What are you feeling? Anger? Betrayal? Shame? Clear your head. Try to get to a place where your emotions aren’t dictating your thoughts and actions. This is where you’ll be in your personal power and make appropriate decisions.


Don’t think of yourself as a victim. Thinking of yourself as a victim is paralyzing and will hold you back from taking any action on your behalf. Remember this isn’t just about you. This is a gender based bias and you’re caught up in it.


Believe in yourself and your value. Review your accomplishments and how you have contributed value to the organization. Acknowledge your worthiness to boost your confidence. In most cases, the pay gap is not performance based and women receive excellent ranking, but that ranking doesn’t translate into income.


Speak up. Determine who to speak with about this issue first. Is it your boss? Is it your HR manager? Once you schedule the meeting, plan carefully how you will approach the subject and leave your emotions at home.  This can be a sensitive issue so think through how to approach the inequity without coming across as belligerent and emotional. Consider what you know about the people involved in order to speak in a way that resonates with them.


Ask for a raise. Do your homework. Research sites like Glassdoor has a free tool to look up what comparable jobs pay in your industry and geography. State the business case and refer to your accomplishments and how your work has contributed to positive outcomes.


Review options. If your boss and HR manager say ‘No’, that their hands are tied and they can’t raise you to the appropriate salary level for your position, you have a choice. You can consult with an attorney about the feasibility of a legal case against your employer. You can stay in the job, or you can stay in the job temporarily and start looking for another position with another company.


Remember, whatever your decision, you are in the power seat. You have the ultimate control over your life and career. It’s you who determines your future path.

Though there has been very little progress to close the gender pay gap, we can’t give up and not address it. If we don’t speak up individually and collectively, nothing will change.


Originally published at Forbes

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