Q: I recently found out that several people who report to me are making significantly more money than I am. I was furious and confronted my boss. He gave me a significant raise, but I’m still not making as much as one of my male reports. (Big surprise: I’m a woman.) My boss, a man, justified his decision by saying that I had a history of making less money and that if I stuck with the job I’d see my salary increase over time. This seemed reasonable, but the more I think about it, the more angry I am, and the anger is starting to affect my performance. What do I do? — New York City
A: This is totally uncool. Who is this overpaid report? Is he an astronaut you radio from a comfy, swiveling chair at ground control? You mention you are a woman, the report is a man, and your boss is also a man. Your dilemma is likely due in large part to the genders of the actors involved. This is not necessarily because of overt discrimination (although it might be), but rather because women, who are socially punished for seeming “too pushy,” are on average not as aggressive as men when negotiating salary and this adds up. You experienced this effect yourself because your male boss gave you a significant raise only when you assertively complained.
I don’t know if you know this, but in order to keep what has happened to you from happening to anyone else who is agreeable and underpaid, laws have been passed in New York City, as well as other parts of the country, prohibiting employers from asking prospective employees for their compensation history. At first I thought this was a little weird. In my old job as a recruiter, we asked all applicants for their compensation history before we even looked at their materials. But I worked at a big company where unacceptable kinks — like having reports make more than their managers — had for the most part been worked out. In fact, many big companies have what are known as “compensation bands,” which means that people in similar roles make roughly similar amounts.
Although I’m glad that, when confronted, your boss admitted he had taken advantage of you based on your compensation history, that’s not reason enough to keep you at your current pay. This boss has shown you how he rolls, and you can never trust him again, at least not with your salary.
Stay where you are for now, asking for raises every chance you get. In the meantime, start sending your résumé out — but avoid corporate servers, please! Your boss could easily be looking for a reason he can fire you without being sued.
When life hands you lemons, ask for the moon
Q: I love my job and am generally happy with management. But during a recent team meeting, my boss made a comment alluding to my pregnancy (which I had shared only with her, her boss and a few work friends), and in that awkward moment, I felt compelled to share with the team that I was expecting. I spoke with her afterward, expressing my frustration that this was not her news to share. She was apologetic. Later in the day I Googled it and felt like she divulged confidential medical information without my consent, which feels rather serious. I’m not sure what to do next. — California
A: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” as the saying goes. Or, to update it for the modern workplace: “When life hands you an indiscreet boss who blabs about your pregnancy, exact as many professional favors as you can!”
You can’t go back in time and make your colleagues unknow this personal fact, which — let’s face it — is bad for your career because people are sexist jerks who penalize women professionally for simply reproducing. But you can try to turn this situation to your advantage.
I say: Start asking for the moon (or at least privileges that women about to go on maternity leave often lose, like being given high-profile assignments and consideration for raises and promotions). Anything less can be construed as retaliation, at least in your boss’s worst nightmares! She should be the one trying to make up for her lapse in judgment, not you. Let’s make it so.
Q: I’m in my early 50s, but people tell me I look much younger. The last rounds of layoffs in my organization have primarily affected people my age and older, with a few much younger people also let go. (I think the company, a huge corporation, is carefully covering its bases to avoid age-discrimination lawsuits.) I’m going to become a grandparent soon, and I think it’s better to keep this news to myself, possibly forever. Obviously HR knows my true age, but perception is everything. Any thoughts? — New Jersey
A: First things first: You are correct. It is better to keep the news of the imminent birth of your grandchild to yourself if you can manage it. This is not so much because being a grandma will get you fired but rather because it is unlikely to get you a promotion or raise. There is, in other words, no professional upside to disclosure. Why take the risk?
But reading your letter, I wonder if you haven’t been retained not as a fig leaf for this company’s systematic ageism but rather because your work is indispensable or inexpensive, or both. Seniority correlates to pay, and in a layoff situation what looks like systematic ageism can be the result of straightforward if chillingly ruthless cost-benefit analysis. “Virtue is its own reward” — as is being an underpaid but functionally integral woman in a layoff situation, apparently.
Ageism is real, and I would never discount it. But its knock-on effects — being the only person in a company who understands the Rube Goldberg machine of some esoteric operational process or, if you’re an older woman in particular, being paid less than market rate even relative to junior peers — are potentially more direct inputs in the situation you’re describing than your age.
Keep the news of your impending grandmotherhood to yourself. But in the meantime, be sure everybody knows how essential your work is to the company’s bottom line. And when the dust settles, especially if your workload has increased because of the layoffs, consider asking for a raise. Counterintuitive, I know.
Katy Lederer is the author of three books of poems and a memoir. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.