How to fight for equal pay at work and help close the pay gap

How to get what’s yours: Equal pay at work

Not long ago, Hollywood raised a spotlight on the gender pay gap. Before All the Money in the World (yes, the title adds to the irony) was released in December 2017, the filmmakers had to reshoot some scenes. They wanted to edit out Kevin Spacey, one of the original stars, whose sexual misconduct left him persona non grata, and replace him with Christopher Plummer. This required two costars in those scenes, Michelle Williams (nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in the film) and Mark Wahlberg, to return to the set. It eventually leaked that Williams got a per diem rate of $80 for 10 days of reshoots. Wahlberg received the same rate—plus a $1.5 million bonus that he negotiated for.

Sadly, this is a familiar scenario to women in the workforce (minus the Hollywood backdrop and the eye-popping figures). Though the pay gap has narrowed, women who work full-time, year-round still earn, on average, only 80.5 cents for every dollar that men do. (It’s a little better, around 90 cents, for millennial women.) The roots of this gap are complex: discriminatory treatment of women in terms of pay, recruitment, job assignments, and promotion decisions; lower earnings in occupations, often in caregiving, that are dominated by women; and women’s tendency to do the lion’s share of caring for children and other family members—leaving less time to put in hours at work and thereby advance up the pay scale. (For those who protest that the gender pay gap is a myth, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a Washington, DC–based think tank, has some sharp answers.)

While it’s discouraging that women are still fighting this battle, “one silver lining is that it’s so much on everybody’s agenda for the moment,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at IWPR. If you want paycheck parity, here’s how to go about asking for it. And yes, you will have to ask.

  1. Do some detective work. The water cooler probably isn’t the place to find out whether you’re being paid as much as the guy in the cubicle next to yours. The majority of private-sector employers discourage or outright forbid coworkers from sharing salary info. (Bans on talking about wages are illegal, according to the National Labor Relations Board, but that doesn’t stop many companies from enforcing them.) Websites such as,, and will give general salary ranges, but these averages will include the pay of both genders, and thus won’t reveal what men, as opposed to women, are earning. To get a more accurate picture of pay for your specific job, in your area, do some targeted digging, advised Amanda Linden, director of product design at Facebook, in an article on Medium. She suggested talking to recruiters and networking with people in your industry, not collecting data from within your company. If you do happen to hit pay dirt and discover a big disparity with a male colleague—sometimes people leave things they shouldn’t on the copier—outrage is understandable. But try not to let your initial emotional reaction color what comes next. You’ll need to be clear-eyed—and have a plan—to navigate it.
  2. You don’t need permission to negotiate. You won’t achieve pay equity by keeping your head down and working hard, trusting that you’ll eventually be rewarded, though that’s the approach many women take. You need to go out and ask for it. But research has found that women aren’t as likely to negotiate salary as men are, and when they do, they often ask for less money. The problem isn’t that women aren’t capable of negotiating; it’s that they wait for the green light to do so. The women-don’t-ask problem disappears when employers state in a job ad that “salary is negotiable.” The real difference is that men are more likely to negotiate even when an employer doesn’t explicitly say that it’s OK to. You might be tempted to think, “My salary is already set. It’s too late for me to ask for more.” Sorry, but you have to think more like a man (just this once), and be willing to open the conversation about negotiation yourself.
  3. To protect yourself, don’t get personal. Sadly, the truth is that retaliation—including being fired—is a real risk that some women run if they complain about pay inequity, said Hegewisch. While it may be tempting to storm into your boss’s office if you have good evidence of unfair treatment, try to avoid putting your supervisor on the defensive. Cite evidence from outside the company, as well as your own accomplishments in the job, advised Hegewisch. You might try an approach that goes something like, “I’ve looked around, and I realize that my position in some other companies in the area is compensated higher. I’ve done A, B, and C in the past year. What is between me and a raise?”
  4. Know your rights. If you get nowhere with your supervisor, the next step is to go to HR. Some HR staffs genuinely want their companies to be equal-pay employers and may respond positively to your concerns, but be on your guard. “You should remember that they are employed by the company,” said Hegewisch. “They’re not obliged to keep things confidential, and they may be defensive.” If you get nowhere in HR, consider contacting your regional Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office. If you decide to bring a lawsuit against your company for violating the Equal Pay Act or other laws about compensation, you have two years from the time of the alleged violation to do so, either through the EEOC or on your own. Consult a lawyer about your options.
  5. Know when to fold ’em. If you do take your employer to court over equal pay, my hat’s off to you. But that’s a big commitment, one that you may not be in a position to make. If so, seek out another job where you will be paid fairly. “The reality is, law cases are not easy. It can take a lot of emotional strength and time,” said Hegewisch. “So sometimes the best option may be to say, ‘OK, let’s see where else I can go.’” Of course, it isn’t fair that you would have to switch companies just to get the pay you deserve, but in a world where Michelle Williams—Michelle Williams!—makes $1.5 million less than her male costar, realities are what they are. And when you’re negotiating that next offer, remember to do your homework and push for what you’re worth before you accept the job. Good luck out there.
benefits compensation employers equal employment opportunity equal pay gender pay gap human resources jobs money gap negotiate pay gap pay scale salary wages women womens rights

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