The Wages of Being a Woman at Work

The Wages of Being a Woman at Work

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.

Though 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.

Essential Grandma

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 H.R. knows my true age, but perception is everything. Any thoughts?

— New Jersey

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.

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