When I lived in Nashville, a young woman moved into the cul-de-sac just two doors down from my home. She was probably in her early thirties and had two young children—a son about four years old and an infant daughter. It quickly seemed evident that there was no father or husband in the picture, and I regrettably assumed she was divorced. I chatted with her here and there while our children rode bikes and played outside. She seemed happy enough, with an easy smile, but there also seemed to be sadness about her. After a few of these conversations, I learned that she was not divorced but rather was widowed. Needless to say, I was surprised because she was so young. Her husband had been a doctor, and one night within the prior year when they were having dinner at home, he collapsed at the table. He had an underlying and undiagnosed heart condition and was gone before the paramedics could arrive. I could not imagine losing a partner so suddenly and tragically, and especially to be left with two young children to raise alone. She was not exactly alone in that both her parents and her late husband’s parents were around a lot and helped her adjust to life without him.
One of the factors that made her adjustment less stressful and traumatic was that she had been a nurse before her children were born. While she had shifted to part-time work for a few years after the birth of her son, she was quickly able to pivot back to mostly full-time work after her husband’s death. If she’d had no profession to go back to—no skills or knowledge with which to earn a solid income—she would have been not only traumatized by the loss of her partner but also facing the daunting task of raising two children on a minimum wage job. This woman’s plight and her resilience have stayed with me for eighteen years, and I can still remember her smiling face and those of her children.
As humans, we are apt to view the future through rose-colored glasses or lenses. We think that “everything will be fine.” Often it is, but sometimes it is not. Life often does not go the rosy way that we envision or expect. We do not anticipate our partner to suddenly be taken from us, leaving us to be the sole breadwinner and sole parent of any offspring whom we might still be raising. Making our own money can save our sanity, our confidence and our ability to stand on our own two feet should life not go the way we had hoped.
$370 million. That was the gender pay gap between the $400 million in prize money for the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup prize money pool and the $30 million in 2019 FIFA Women’s prize money pool. Winners from the men’s team took home a collective $38 million, while winners of the women’s team took home a comparatively paltry $4 million. Yet from 2015 through 2019 (the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the U.S. women’s soccer team generated more revenue through ticket sales each year than the men’s team.
What does professional soccer have to do with your approach or ability to make your own money? It starts with striving to ensure that you are paid what you are worth! In 2020, the gender pay gap in the United States was 18 percent, meaning women made 82 cents for every dollar a man made. Thus, on average, women must work three months longer to earn what men earn. Further, over a woman’s lifetime, it means she loses out on between $700,000 and $2 million in earned income. In the state of Utah, where I was living in 2020, women working full-time made 70 percent of what men working full-time earned, giving the state a rank of fiftieth in the United States. In 2019, the country with the smallest gender pay gap was Iceland, where women earned almost 86 cents for every dollar a man earned. Who wants to move to Iceland?!?! Sign me up.
Knocking Down Rain Barriers
How can we make it rain harder and also avoid the gender pay gap? One way is to work for organizations that make pay equity a priority and that thus have processes in place to limit or at least catch instances of inequity. When I worked for Deloitte (one of the Big Four accounting firms) back in the late 1990s, I got an up-close and personal look at what real efforts toward pay equity look like in an organization. Every few years, the firm reviewed the compensation of all of its people.
I had been with the firm for a couple of years when my manager at the time, Jeff, came to chat with me. In the conversation, he noted that he had been under the impression that I had a bachelor’s degree, but the human resources department indicated that I did not. Being only about twenty-five and still building my confidence, I stammered something about having a bachelor’s and that I could bring in evidence if that was needed. Jeff assured me that proof wasn’t needed but that he had realized in the compensation review that my male colleague, Jeremy, who’d been hired about six months after me, was making a noticeably higher salary than me. Jeff said that when he dug into the details, he realized that the HR system had me down with an associate’s degree rather than a four-year degree, and thus that was reflected in my salary. He said he would address the issue with HR and my salary would be elevated to match that of Jeremy since we had a similar number of years of work experience and the same level of education.
I remember sitting there not quite realizing what had just transpired. A massive organization cared enough about pay equity to not only spend time ensuring that it was happening but also address situations in which they found salaries to be inequitable. The firm could just as easily—more easily, in fact—not analyze the compensation of its people or brush things under the rug when it found inequities or discrepancies. It has been eighteen years since I left Deloitte, but I am still fiercely loyal to the firm, in part because of this experience. I delight in encouraging any of my accounting students or students interested in consulting to consider the firm during their job search process. Thus, don’t just seek organizations that say they value diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Do your due diligence to identify those that put their time, money, and effort where their mouth is. They walk the walk—not just talk the talk.
Another way to pursue equitable compensation is to take the advice I was given by a business leader and simply ask your boss, “Am I being paid equitably?” Here, you are not making an accusation, just an inquiry. Timeliness in this situation is likely to be key. For instance, if you have been in a specific position for a while and a few males have been recruited into similar positions since then, it is possible that unconscious bias has crept into the salary determination and negotiation process. Also, posing this question after a big win at work such as coming in early or under budget on a project or deliverable, or getting verifiable kudos (e.g., an email, text, or voicemail that you can forward to your boss) from a client or customer, is a smart move as well. With this question, you give your boss the opportunity to find out what the pay equity situation is within your group or team and for any discrepancies to be addressed with less risk of making the boss feel defensive. If you believe you can trust your boss to be truthful with you, that is great. If your boss has proven themselves to be untrustworthy in the past and thus may be inclined to lie to your face in answering this question, you might consider putting out feelers for a new job.
Bottom line: Make your own money so that if life shifts unexpectedly, as it often can, you are ready to support yourself and any dependents in your life. Making your own money provides you with freedom, a measure of independence, and a level of security that is difficult to achieve when you are financially dependent on another person. Get paid what you are worth and be prepared to move on if your employer demonstrates little to no interest in pay equity.