The challenges of being a woman at work
KATY LEDERER is a writer for The New York Times. Here, she answers readers questions about situations facing women employees.
QUESTION: I love my job and am generally happy with management. But during a recent team meeting, my boss made a comment referring 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 to her afterwards, expressing my frustration that this was not her news to share. She apologised.
Later in the day, I googled it and felt like she disclosed confidential medical information without my consent, which feels rather serious. I am not sure what to do next.
ANSWER: “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 favours as you can”
You cannot go back to make your colleagues unknow this personal fact, which — let’s face it — is bad for your career because people are sexist jerks who penalise women professionally for simply reproducing. But you can try to turn this situation to your advantage.
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 judgement, not you.
QUESTION: 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 am still not making as much as one of my male subordinates. (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 would see my salary increase over time.
That seemed reasonable, but the more I think about it, the angrier I am, and the anger is starting to affect my performance. What do I do?
ANSWER: This is totally uncool. Who is this overpaid subordinate? Is he an astronaut you radio from a comfy, swivelling chair at ground control?
You mention that you are a woman, the subordinate 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 (though 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 asserted yourself.
I do not 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 prohibiting employers from asking prospective employees for their remuneration history.
At first I thought this was a little weird. In my old job as a recruiter, we asked all applicants for their remuneration history before we even looked at their qualifications.
But I worked at a big company where unacceptable quirks, like having subordinates earn 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.
Though I am glad that when confronted, your boss admitted he had taken advantage of you based on your remuneration history, that is 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 CV out, but avoid corporate servers, please. Your boss could easily be looking for a reason he can fire you without being sued.
QUESTION: I am in my early ‘50s, but people tell me I look much younger. The last rounds of lay-offs in my organisation 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 am going to become a grandparent soon, and I think it is better to keep this news to myself, possibly forever. Obviously, HR knows my true age, but perception is everything. Any thoughts?
ANSWER: 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 have not 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 lay-off 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 lay-off 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 some esoteric operational process or, if you are 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 are 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.
When the dust settles, especially if your workload has increased because of the lay-offs, consider asking for a raise. Counter-intuitive, I know.
This was first published in The New York Times.