How can women get paid what they deserve?

Our work advice columnist on campaigning for equal pay—and how to break into a work clique

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

Q: I’ve read that women in America now make around 80 cents on the dollar compared to what men make. I have consistently heard that this is because women do not ask for raises and therefore they are paid less than men. I wonder if this is really the case, or if women are asking and they aren’t getting the raises they deserve, yet when men ask they just get it? What can I do to ensure I get paid what I deserve?

You are correct that the average gender pay gap is 80 percent, based on “the median annual pay of all women who work full time and year-round, compared to the pay of a similar cohort of men.” But it gets worse: Depending on education, age, racial bias, disability, etc., that gap becomes even more extreme. Women certainly ask for raises just like men do, but I can’t give you the numbers on who asks more, or if men are simply more likely to get them when they ask. I can say that there are clearly entrenched social structures that factor into the way men and women are rewarded for their work in this world. And these structures skew toward accommodating men, who were traditionally the handlers and makers of money. (A horrifying reminder: Until the ‘70s, women couldn’t even apply for credit in their own names, among other things.)

One of the very simple (yet hard—why are simple things so hard sometimes?) ways to combat the gender pay gap is to do what many companies don’t want you to do: Share your pay information with colleagues, and encourage them to share as well. This is especially incumbent upon men, who have benefited from structural financial privilege for ages: Tell your female coworkers what you make. Ask around about what your male coworkers make. Level the playing field for everyone. (There’s a lot of helpful reading on this topic, including a piece in the New York Times on why we should share our salaries, and how to go about it.)

Overall, I’d urge discretion: Share among people you trust, and in a way that feels right (i.e., don’t shout it out in the middle of the break room and demand others ’fess up, too). Sometimes employers forbid sharing pay information—though that’s not actually legal, according to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2014 to make more employers aware of the law. If there is any retribution for sharing your salary, you can turn to HR, because legally, with some exceptions, you’re in the clear. If HR doesn’t help, it’s time to find a lawyer.

You should also do all you can to educate yourself on what people make at various levels of your industry. The internet is a great place for such research: Because people can remain anonymous, they are more likely to share freely (though, as with anything online, gut-check what you read).

Know your worth, and do not hesitate to ask for a raise—in fact, make it a goal to do this annually. When you do so, make a strong, evidence-based case for why your work is deserving of a raise. Have a real track record for your success; don’t make it a tit-for-tat conversation about what you’ve observed other people earn. If you do think you have a pay discrimination case—start by reading this—seek an employment lawyer in your state; some may consult with you without incurring a fee.

Q: There’s this group that hangs out together at a spot where I like to work. They’re clearly all really good friends—they take afternoon coffee breaks at the same time, they whisper with each other in the morning with knowing smiles, and they seem to do things together outside of work-time. They have their own little social ecosystem going, and it looks fun, and I want in. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like the new kid at school, and it’s strange to rediscover these feelings as the outsider. Since we don’t actually work for the same company, there aren’t the usual excuses to get to know one another. I’ve tried approaching them individually and said hello, and they’re generally friendly, but our interactions are perfunctory (“Good morning,” and then they switch right back to their laptops), whereas theirs seem deeper, and tinged with laughter and inside jokes. Help! How do I get on more friendly terms with them without feeling like a total loser? Or is this anxiety ridiculous?

First, let me reassure you, anxiety is never ridiculous. It’s scary for the majority of us to meet new people, and even more scary when the stakes are, “Can I get these people who seem really cool to like me?” You’re putting yourself out there, and the fear of rejection—and therefore, seeming terribly uncool—is real. But keep in mind: Much like a job interview, the initial stages of any friendship are about seeing whether you like a person as much as they are about making that person like you.

So. You see these people regularly, you think you like them, and they see you regularly, too, and are at least making basic friendliness gestures, so that’s promising. But they’re all comfortable in their group, and you’re alone and want more, so unfortunately, it’s up to you to make the next move.

I don’t recommend going full Notting Hill, standing in front of them and asking them to love you. I’d focus, and start small. Is there one person in this group who seems more approachable than the rest, or whom you seem to share moments with? (i.e., you’re both always getting up for coffee at the same time, or you find yourself both laughing when something silly happens? Do you both have the same “Save the Whales” sticker on your laptops?) When the two of you are not entrenched in work/computers/phones—say, heading out to get lunch or getting up to take a break—ask them something. This can be pretty generic: “How long have you been working here?” “Are those corn muffins any good?” Or “I love your shirt, where did you get it?” Or maybe you’re both nodding along to a song: “Did you see this band when they played here last summer? I’m a huge fan.”

If that initial conversational stuff goes well, move forward: Suggest hanging out outside of work. “If you’re ever up for a beer after work, there’s this really cool place nearby,” or, “That band we both love is in town next week—want to see them?” Make sure to listen as well or better than you talk. Ask questions and be genuinely interested. If your interaction with that first person goes well, you’ve got an in to start sitting with the group, and from that, the future is yours.

If you get the brush-off, that’s on them, not you. Maybe they’re not as cool as you think. But you’re never a loser just because you tried to make new friends. And if you’re watching this group and wanting to be friends with them, there’s a good chance someone is looking at you and doing the same.

Q: I know most people are bothered when someone leaves the coffee pot empty, but I can’t stand the way my office colleagues make coffee. Is it OK to toss out a full (but way too weak) pot of coffee so I can brew a proper cup?

This may be controversial but… yes. Life is too short for bad coffee.

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