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Why We Need a Better Way of Talking About Equal Pay

Heidy Rehman

Posted on August 02 2017

Equal pay

I’ve grown to dislike the term ‘equal pay’. Without doubt women deserve to be paid the same as men for the same job role and performance but it is the argument that stands against them. ‘Equal pay’ has an underlying tone of ‘it’s not fair’ which is a weak position from which to negotiate.

I say this from experience, as a woman in the City who could and should have been paid more than her male counterparts. My argument was always equal pay. It failed me.

I was an equity research analyst at a large and prestigious US investment bank. Client rankings, as measured by the leading surveys (Extel and Institutional Investor), were the main indicators of job performance. In the last years of my career I was top ranked in both surveys across two disparate sectors (Chemicals and Construction /Industrials). As far as I am aware, no one else in the City has ever achieved this. But still, my pay lagged.

My boss would say, “you are my best-performing analyst”. I would respond, “but I’m not your best paid”. I lost count of the number of times I heard “next year’s your year”. I know now that I should never have signalled my worth in the relative terms of equal pay. Instead I should have argued from an objective, singular and personal position within the market.

A male colleague laughed at my frustration. “Don’t expect them to be fair. They’ll pay you as little as they can get away with. You need to hold a gun to their head.” By this he meant counter-offers from rival banks. But it’s a strategy that has a limited lifespan. Potential employers are wary, existing employers untrusting. You mark your CV.

Eventually I left the City (partly in frustration) and went on to found my own company where individual merit is the basis for any discussion relating to pay or promotion, irrespective of gender or any other extraneous factor.

As an employer, and on the other side of the table, I have a whole new perspective. Most striking is how uncomfortable most women seem to be when it comes to discussing pay, even if I bring it up. One would visibly squirm in her seat. Men, in contrast, seem much more willing to put it upfront and centre, even with little to back it up.

On one occasion I asked a male employee to assume temporarily some additional tasks. Immediately he asked for more money. My response was that he prove he could do them first. I’ve yet to meet a woman with the same level of confidence.

I now mentor career professionals. When it comes to pay the advice I offer is broadly the same. Understand market rates and always have ready a clear, summary record of your performance and achievements as set against those rates. This will ensure that you always know your worth. Don’t confine pay and performance discussions to annual and biannual appraisals. Make it at least a quarterly event, within a formal setting and with conversations confirmed subsequently in email. This will make it clear to your boss that getting paid market rate is important to you. If you are a valued employee, he/she will not want you to be disgruntled and potentially looking elsewhere. Aside from losing someone who performs, managers are always measured in terms of retention of staff. And if you do decide to leave because of pay, they can never say they weren’t warned.

I say this especially to working mothers as returning from maternity leave is often where women’s pay really starts to lag that of their male peers. This is mainly because career progression slows. Basically the argument is that women are less likely to be promoted because they put in less facetime in the office. But longer hours doesn’t necessarily translate to higher productivity or better job performance. This is when I would argue that it is even more important to be armed with current evidence of achievement. 

Part of the challenge to rebalancing pay disparity is that many employers consider female employment as a source of problems. They look to government for the solution while fearing that all they’ll get is burdensome and costly regulation. Companies need to be reminded of what women deliver. Women should tell them.

Ultimately when the conversation is centred specifically on performance gender will become irrelevant and that is when equality will truly have been achieved. Don’t ask for equal pay. You could be worth more. Know your worth.

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