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MARCH 01, 2022

Stepping over the pay gap

It is a proven fact that women earn less than men in the workplace. That said, women can take charge when it comes to seeking equality. Here are several strategies and tips to help women advance their careers, negotiate higher pay and/or access other employment perks and benefits.

The wage gap between women and men varies by age, industry, location, and the method by which you measure it. Most estimates fall within a 10-25% range of lower compensation — and that number grows for women who are Indigenous, living with a disability, racially or ethnically diverse, or recent immigrants.

What is less clear is why this problem persists. A commonly used explanation blames women themselves, for failing to ask for the compensation they deserve. A study conducted by Glassdoor in March 2021 found that 42% of men versus 27% of women had asked for a raise in the past year, and women were 19% less likely to be planning to ask for a pay raise, bonus and/or cost-of-living increase in the next 12 months.

As these and other statistics continue to be publicized, what is critically lost are the systemic explanations behind them, primarily being that women are socialized not to self-promote, and are often “punished” in some way by doing so, including when advocating for compensation in the workplace. In fact, in the years leading up to the pandemic, research was finding that women were asking for increased compensation about as often as men — except they were 25% less likely to be successful.

“These days it seems like there is zero negotiation allowed for new employment,” says Celeste, a network professional based in San Diego, California, who has been in her industry on and off for over 23 years. “Maybe it's where I am at in my career and career search, but compensation for women has yet to be presented as a dialogue. More of a take it or leave it.”

What to ask for, and how to ask for it

Simply telling women to act more like men is not the solution to close the compensation gap. But while we work on the necessary systemic changes, women need a better understanding of what to ask for, and how to ask for it.

Fotini Iconomopoulos is a speaker, trainer, and author of Say Less, Get More: Unconventional Negotiation Techniques to Get What You Want. She has spent more than a decade teaching women negotiation and communication skills, including advising clients on getting the compensation they deserve. 

“Both studies and anecdotal evidence show us that women are treated differently when it comes to negotiation, so we need to be more savvy,” says Iconomopoulos. “We need to find ways to get creative on compensation as well, because salary is one piece of it — you can’t pay your mortgage except with the money in your bank account — but there are ways you can increase your wealth in addition to salary.”

She recommends starting with considering your everyday or occasional expenditures that the company can be covering. Things like parking, transportation, and home office expenses, including your Internet, computer, printer and cell phone. When you take income tax into account, you have to earn more than $100 to pay a $100 invoice — while your company might be able to take advantage of bulk rates or tax incentives.

You can also negotiate for education or training funds, from conference allowances to professional certifications to earning your MBA. “There are lots of things from a personal development perspective that will not only help you save money, but also help you advance your career,” Iconomopoulos notes.

Career advancement

From the perspective of career advancement, there are also non-monetary items to consider that are really important, like your job title. “If you do have to leave this company someday, or if you want to get promoted internally, your job title determines your jumping off point,” advises Iconomopoulos. She also recommends asking what kind of access you have to interesting and valuable projects, and what exposure you’ll have to potential mentors and sponsors. “All of those things are going to help qualitatively and quantitatively to advance your career, and hopefully make you a lot more money a lot faster.”

Some employers may hesitate to give you the title or salary you’re asking for until they’ve seen you in action. It’s an issue Iconomopoulos sees happening more often with women than men:  “men are often hired on their potential, women on their proof.”  Iconomopoulos recommends asking for a starting bonus: “It’s a great way to bridge the gap, as they don’t have to commit to higher compensation fully.”

Approach to negotiation

When it comes to your negotiation approach, Iconomopoulos says much of it is based on gut instinct. “You need to know the person you’re dealing with, and understand the right timing,” she says, adding that there are some general guidelines to follow. Some elements, like job titles, might be easier to bring up sooner, as compared to asking about a benefits package. “It’s very common to have salary be an early part of the conversation, so people shouldn’t be shy about doing that. If they’ve made an offer, or you know they really want you, that’s when it’s appropriate to be talking about all these extra details.”

Depending on your industry, there might be established norms with respect to perks, but consider them a starting point. “As much as I would recommend people do their homework to understand what’s standard in your industry, so you’re at least getting the bare minimum — don’t let that limit you in terms of what you should ask for,” says Iconomopoulos. “Just because it’s normal in consulting but not normal in manufacturing doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for it or that you won’t get it.”

Iconomopoulos has similar advice for seniority level. “Usually, the more senior you are, the more extra signing incentives you can get, because you’re going to be leaving behind some serious job security. You have to be thinking of what they can do to minimize some of that risk,” she says.  “It’s compensation, as well as beginning your benefits from day one, versus a trial period — all things that can add to your bottom line and may very well be standard costs for the business. They’re more expected in senior roles, but not impossible in junior roles.”

Diane1 has spent two decades in the advertising industry. It's common to switch agencies every few years, either to gain experience on new clients or to move up the ladder, so she’s been through the process many times. She now approaches each offer as a negotiation and recognizes that companies have the leeway to bend their own rules, especially when it comes to more senior positions.

“I’ve asked several times to waive the three-month probationary period to get access to health benefits right away,” says Diane. “And when I started in my current role, it was a standard part of the package to have a car allowance and parking spot — except I don’t drive. So, I negotiated for a metro pass instead.”

Tailoring the offer to her needs is a tactic Diane recommends to others. “I always look through to see if there are any benefits I won’t be able to use, and think of what else I can negotiate for in its place,” Diane says. Her savvy comes from experience, but she has learned the most about how to succeed in negotiations by talking openly with friends and mentors. Iconomopoulos recommends this approach to anyone preparing for such negotiations.

“The greatest resource we have is people,” she says. “The hiccup with that is people are very uncomfortable talking about salary.” To overcome that hurdle, she suggests carefully crafting your questions in more general terms, such as ‘what would you expect someone of my experience level to get in this organization, or in my industry?’

“Without those conversations, I fear that even with Google and Glassdoor and all of those resources, we’re missing a really important piece of the puzzle to get women where they deserve to be,” says Iconomopoulos. “There are wonderful people out there who want to see you be successful, so tap into those people, ask great questions, and you won't be held back by some of those obstacles put in your way.”

And that’s the real key: if we recognize the systemic obstacles are there, we can focus on solutions that actually help us to overcome them, while working towards a future where they no longer hold us back. 

For more information, speak with your BMO financial professional.


[1] The name of the individual has been changed for the purpose of this article.



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