My Advice to Women on Asking for a Raise

PHOTO: Too many women fail to act like men at raise time and their wealth suffers for it.

Many women are constantly searching for a clear way to increase their wealth, but the answer is right in front of them every day at work. The most fundamental way for working women to increase their investment capital is to get a raise.

A 10 percent salary increase for a 30-year-old woman earning $45,000 a year, invested over 35 years with an average annual return of 6 percent, could mean additional accumulated wealth of half a million dollars upon retirement at age 65.

Recent studies show that women’s earnings on average are about 77 percent of men’s. To address this, President Obama signed directives earlier this month to make it easier for federal contract workers to get information about workplace compensation. These directives prohibit companies from punishing workers who share salary information, as would pending legislation that applies to all companies. The goal is to make it more difficult for companies to falsely argue that gaps in pay aren’t gender-based, and to pave the way for class-action lawsuits when cases of gender bias can be made.

Yet removing barriers is only one answer for women seeking to boost their earnings. The other is to realize that in business and professional jobs, their financial destinies are, to a large extent, in their own hands. This means resolving to make it happen. Before I was a financial planner, I worked for several companies, rising to positions including controller and chief financial officer by improving my job performance. None of my success was an accident. I made it happen by working hard and making the right moves.

Women need to realize that the people who get higher salaries tend to be the people who ask for them. Most of these people are men. Numerous studies on the gender pay gap conclude that a key reason men get higher salaries on average is that they’re more inclined to negotiate. Many women are less likely to negotiate because they tend to lack self-confidence.

You can build this confidence gradually by taking the right steps. Then you will truly believe that you’re worth more money. If you don’t believe this, you won’t project it and your company won’t value you as highly.

These steps include:

• Do your homework. This means determining what your industry pays for jobs requiring a comparable level of skill and responsibility to yours. Various websites offer this information, including www.glassdoor.com, www.payscale.com, www.indeed.com and www.beyond.com. If you’re just starting out, this research is essential. Why apply to companies that pay low? If you already have a job, this pay information might tell you that you’re being underpaid for your industry. If further research tells you that your company pays lower overall for its industry, maybe you joined the wrong company in your field. But perhaps you can fix this by getting a raise or, if that doesn’t work, by changing companies.

• Make sure you’re worth it. This process of getting higher pay starts with knowing the value of your work in that position — what you bring to the table. Whenever possible, seek to increase your worth to your employer by taking on additional responsibility, volunteering for extra work and making sure people besides your boss find your work helpful. In a commission- or direct-revenue-generating job, your worth is clear — and usually, compensation is commensurate with this productivity, so it’s gender-blind. But in more subjective work-performance environments, your contributions may not be as clear. Your pay may ultimately be based on how useful you are to the users of your work. So it’s critical that your efforts be helpful to your “customers.” Like your company’s external customers, satisfied colleagues can support your case for higher pay.

• To get equal pay, make an equal commitment. To get paid like the boys, work like the boys. This may mean working late; running out the door at 5 p.m. is no way to position for a raise. Of course, for moms with young children to stay late means, they need to get their spouse to help out more with child care. If you married someone who won’t do this, that is a major obstacle. If that’s your situation, you need to get your partner on board with the idea that by helping out with the kids more, the whole family will benefit financially. This is a theme of “Lean In,” the recent best-seller by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

Many women who don’t believe this and rely entirely on their husbands financially for 20 years while taking care of everything at home are setting themselves up for potential misery if their husbands become disabled or they get divorced. Then, without a work record to fall back on, they have little worth in the job market.

Women who have careers early on but take several years off to have children should look for ways to compensate for this on their resumes by getting part-time work in the same field and bolstering their credentials with pertinent education or certifications.

• Don’t give your boss ammunition against you. That means not mentioning things that may result in their devaluing you or minimizing your contribution to the company. In your conversations with your supervisors, don’t focus on your children unless you absolutely have to; there’s a limit to how much they need to know about your personal life. Unfortunately, some people will assume that, because you have children, you may not be fully committed to your job. When you go into a job interview or a salary review, don’t talk about work/life balance; talk about work. This advice may not be politically correct, but it’s based on social reality.

• Blow your own horn. Promote yourself as you go along in a job, and throughout your career. By this, I don’t mean running around saying how great you are. But forget about being humble, a trap too many women fall into. There are tasteful, acceptable ways to promote yourself. Make it clear what you’re doing that’s of value and why.

• Just like men, you must negotiate. Base your case on your demonstrated accomplishments. Look down the road and what you have to do to make a compelling argument. When it comes time to talk money, will you be able to justify your claim? When the time is right — normally, during your annual review — make your case by listing your accomplishments and what you’ve done for the end-users of your work.

• Don’t get complacent. Even if all of this helps you get a substantial raise, don’t sit on your laurels. For one thing, you want to always be earning your next raise. For another, your work performance and credentials are part of your professional identity, an identity that you can pick up and take with you when you leave your company. The better your reputation, and the more it spreads from interactions with your industry colleagues outside the company, the more likely you’ll be to get job offers. In an uncertain employment environment, there’s nothing that can help you more.

Continuous employment, with steady salary growth while keeping your spending in check, is the best route to greater investment capital, building greater wealth and, ultimately, a secure retirement. It all starts with becoming financially empowered and resolving to get raises. But you have to ask for them. First, be sure you deserve them.

Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Laura Mattia is a partner with Baron Financial Group, and a fee-only financial advisor. She's a Certified Financial Planner professional (CFP®), a Chartered Retirement Plan Specialist (CRPS®) and a Certified Divorce Planner (CDFA™) and holds an M.B.A. in accounting/finance. Her Internet radio show is Financially Empowering Women™ with Laura Mattia. A professor at the Rutgers University Business School, Mattia is completing a Ph.D. in financial planning from Texas Tech University; her dissertation is on how to help women plan for retirement.

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