Achieving Equal Pay for Equal Work: Negotiation vs. Legislation

Without well defined legislation ensuring equal pay for all women in the United States, some are turning to fine tuning their salary negotiation skills and strategies.

By Ali Follman

Equal Pay Day Press Conference

Above: Senator Mikulski (D-Md.) together with Senate and House Democrats and advocacy leaders call for paycheck fairness on Equal Pay Day, April 14, 2015. Photograph by Ali Follman.

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the difference between the workforce value of men and women, in most professions in America, comes down to their paychecks.

In a press conference on Equal Pay Day led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, people came together to bring attention to the fact that in America, if you’re female, you probably earn on average 78 cents to every man’s dollar.

Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) highlighted the double standard in the workplace. “If the men in this country only made 78 cents for every dollar a woman makes, we would not be standing here today,” Hirono said. “Not only would equal pay be the law of the land, it would be the reality.”

Equal Pay Day is a little known holiday before Tax Day that is meant to bring serious attention to the gender pay gap in America. The National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) started this day of awareness in 1996. This year, April 14, 2015 marked how long it would take women to work past 2014 to earn roughly the same amount that men earned the year before.

Many factors are attributed to the gender pay gap. Discrimination, sexism, maternity leave, poor negotiation skills and lack of self-confidence are a few. But after years of gender pay disparity, and 58 years after President Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act (one of the first federal anti-discrimination laws that addressed wage differences based on gender), women are finding that the pay gap is stagnant.

Some women are turning to reexamining their negotiation skills in order to make up for the thousands they are being underpaid. One theory is, with stronger salary negotiation skills and greater self-confidence, the other factors that contribute to the difference in pay between men and women could hold less weight and potentially close the gap.

Lisa Maatz, the AAUW’s top policy advisor, was a key speaker at the Equal Pay Day press conference. “The reality is, that this is not myth; this is math,” Maatz said. “Seventy-eight cents on the dollar. Now, that is not an apples to apples comparison and we never claimed that it was. What is should be though is a red flag that says to us ‘why are we not actually passing a law that would address that?’”

What Maatz meant when she said the 78-cents is not an “apples to apples comparison” is that it is an estimation of full-time, year-round workers and can vary based on a woman’s profession, race/ethnicity and state.

Women of color have the largest pay disparity. For example, Hispanic women earn 53 percent of a white man’s earnings, while Asian American women earn almost 90 percent. White men’s salaries are used as a comparison because they make up the largest demographic in the workforce.


(Left to right) Figure 1: Women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s earnings within race/ethnicity. Figure 2: Women’s earnings as a percentage of white men’s earnings (the same bar color for the same races/ethnicities used in Figure 1). These data are from the AAUW “Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, 2014” research.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was the proposed legislation at the center of discussion on Equal Pay Day. One of its provisions would be to stop retaliation against an employee for sharing pay information.

“Right now, if you can ask your co-worker what his or her salary is, you can be retaliated against,” Mikulski said. “It’s the dirty little secret of the work place.”

With its many failed attempts to become a law, the Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced in January of 2009. The Senate then failed to move it in 2010 with no Republican Party co-sponsors. In June of 2012 and April of 2014, the bill was blocked twice by Republican filibusters in the Senate.

Democratic leaders showing their support at the Equal Pay Day press conference said they are confident that President Obama is continuing to fight to achieve the goals of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

On Negotiating And Being “Bossy”

According to supporters of the Paycheck Fairness Act, everyone should be able to discuss salary with co-workers without fear of retaliation. It’s a tool that would help employees gage their own salaries against that of their peers.

But since it is considered taboo to talk about money, this is a tool that women don’t often use, according to a survey from Levo League, a service providing career advice and support to professional women.

Kim Keating, the founder and managing director of Keating Advisors, specializes in salary negotiation and other salary information designed to help women achieve fair and equal pay. She started her firm to provide objectivity and the metrics necessary for organizations to develop systems that support pay equity.

When negotiating a salary or career position, Keating suggests using specific language. “There are some techniques that we recommend women do that are different than what men do because it is proven that they are effective,” Keating said. “It’s not fair, but it’s necessary.”

The use of different negotiation techniques based on gender, according to Keating, confirms that women are at a disadvantage. Society tends to view this disadvantage, such as a women looking bossy, in a negative light.

“It’s a double-edged sword for women in our culture,” Maatz said at the press conference. “We have very special names for assertive women in our culture. If women go in and negotiate without training and information, they’re not at the best advantage.”

In order to negotiate an ideal salary for both parties, the prospective employee must present his or herself well, regardless of gender.

Keating, who is also a board member at Lean In, the online community and support network for professional women born out of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, said confidence, a plan, and market data are necessary tools one should have.

Keating says it is critical to have an objective data point when negotiating and to be able to measure yourself against data that supports your suggested salary range. “A lot of the times it’s difficult to advocate for yourself if you don’t know the bar you should be advocating for,” Keating said.

There are tools a woman can use to ensure the salary she is asking for is suitable for the skills she brings to the company, Keating said. When asking for a raise or negotiating a higher salary, Keating said using the right language is important to show that what you’re asking for will benefit the team you’re working with.

“[Show them that] the skills I’m using to advocate for myself are skills that I will use to advocate for the company,” Keating said.

It appears that not only do women have to fight for themselves, but they have to go a step further to prove how they’re going to make a difference after asking for a higher salary.

Her advice to women: it’s never too late to negotiate for more. She believes a reason why women get paid seven percent less coming out of college than men, according to an AAUW study called Graduating to a Pay Gap, is largely attributed to women not asking.

“It’s never too late if you feel like you are not getting paid your market value,” Keating said. “Get data to tell you what your value is in the market, make sure you’re performing and ask for a raise.”

Solutions to the Pay Gap

What is the best method to close the pay gap? Women can become stronger negotiators and do more “leaning in”, as advised by Sheryl Sandberg, but there are different standards for men and women in the workplace. Even in 2015.

Women can’t simply negotiate like men. “We need to remember that you can’t negotiate your way out of discrimination,” Maatz said.

In some cases, you could be a master negotiator and still not get what you want for many years. AnnMarie Duchon shared her story at the Equal Pay Day press conference about finally receiving a check for her worth after seven years of negotiating.

Duchon worked at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a male co-worker who had identical qualifications down to the same Master’s degree and same university graduation ceremony. She asked her employer if she could be paid more, and was told no.

“I was told that because my male co-worker had accepted a pay cut, he should be paid more,” Duchon said. “Regardless of the fact that I too had taken a pay cut, it didn’t seem to matter.”

Duchon then approached her employer again with data showing the $12,000 she had lost over the years. “I was eventually able to be paid fairly, but it took more than seven years of difficult discussions and cost me thousands of dollars.”

“Unhappy Equal Pay Day”

Stories like AnnMarie Duchon’s are triumphs that do happen. It is possible to negotiate a fair salary or prove that you’re being paid unfairly, but the obstacles aren’t cleared yet.

The position women are put in from a young age can sometimes set them up for unequal salaries. Elizabeth Owens, the political media manager from the AAUW, knows this to be true from talking to women around the country.

“People are often very quick to attribute the pay gap to women’s choices,” Owens said. “When girls are growing up, they aren’t encouraged in science and math as much as boys are…so they don’t go into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]. There’s often things like bias that prevent women from wanting to stay in those majors.”

Regardless of women taking jobs in different professions than men, or women not using the tools to negotiate, Equal Pay Day still exists. The advocates and democratic representatives were wishing each other “Unhappy Equal Pay Day.”

Right now, states are taking action to establish legislation supporting equal pay for equal work. “The states aren’t waiting,” Maatz said. “The states are tired of Congress not being able to figure this out, so they’re doing their own work.”

Arizona, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska and many more states have their own statutes that prohibit wage discrimination. Even though these laws are in place, employers still find ways to get around them.

Fatima Goss Graves, the Vice President for Education and Employment for the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), spoke at the press conference to make sure people knew what employers have been doing.

“The goal is to end sex-based pay discrimination, and there is that long-standing rule [the Equal Pay Act]; but what we know is that there are loopholes in the law that make it easier for employers to get away with paying people [differently] doing the same thing,” Graves said. “So you have this ban, but if it’s hard to enforce, it’s not really a meaningful thing.”

Call it old-fashioned discrimination or a long overdue need for a legislative overhaul; to some women like Mikulski, closing the gender pay gap is the only way to gain some form of gender equality in this country.

Audio: Speakers in order of appearance: Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Lisa Maatz (AAUW).


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