Dealing with your wage gap

“serious question: say you’re in HR and a woman comes to you with, my (male) coworker with same title/years of experience/performance rating is making 47k more than me. what are you supposed to do? what can you do?” - @amyngyn

I replied via Twitter thread to Amy, but realized I should create a blog post to share my thoughts with others more easily in the future.

In my experience, the most effective route is to get a sponsor with power and have them advocate on your behalf for an immediate1 catch-up.

Who’s got the power?

(Note: This isn’t a post about moving to open salaries; that’s a whole subject for another time!)

The people with visibility into how folks are being paid at various levels and disciplines are HR, and managers. With that visibility comes power: they’re the ones who can make a case for a correction, and they’re the ones who, if they’re not paying attention or aren’t incentivized, can perpetuate wage gaps.

That’s why I haven’t seen self-advocacy be effective in the many years in which I have coached members of underrepresented groups to get their salary corrected.

An example

Years ago, I was the only woman at my level in Engineering, and I had a hunch I was being underpaid relative to my peers. When I approached HR about it to ask, they hand-waved me away, reassuring me I was being paid fairly. (“Fair”, we know, is a relative term.)

A year later, I got a different manager who corrected my salary at the next compensation adjustment cycle. The correction resulted in a huge bump in my base salary, as it turned out I was being paid significantly less than my peers. As I wrote here, I’m grateful that he was honest with me, even though it was an awkward conversation to have.

I was able to trace my starting salary back to being low relative to average. The person who hired me still worked there, so I asked him about it. The reasoning he gave is something I’ve heard many times since about others: the lower compensation was them “taking a chance” on me, and hedging their bets. I’m sure that he didn’t realize at the time that the lower incoming salary would compound into a double-digit-percentage gap relative to my peers over years, and I’m sure that HR wasn’t incentivized to acknowledge or correct it until my new manager decided to.

So since then, when I hear from an individual who learned they had a wage gap relative to their peers, I both advise them behind closed doors and go have a chat with their manager and HR myself. It’s only people with power (including me, even if I’m just a senior leader in another part of the company) who can really get the correction to happen.

Having the conversation

Find someone who you trust in a place of authority. It’s best if they’re in your reporting chain, but it’s okay if they’re not, so long as you trust them to keep your best interest at heart.

Explain to them that you discovered that a peer is making significantly more than you do, and ask open questions to figure out what can be done about it. Every company is different; your sponsor can help give you a steer on what the best course of action may be, what timing might be best, what additional information might be needed, or, frankly, whether there’s anything that can be done about it at all.

Get curious

Using questions with your sponsor (rather than statements, or ultimatums) is the best course of action, because you might not have all the information. For example:

If your peer has the same specialist knowledge as you do, has worked at the company for the same amount of time, has delivered on as many business-critical pieces of work as you, then you likely have a great case already built for a correction. But it’s possible that there’s more being factored into the businesses’ way of calculating compensation than you’re already aware of; regardless, it’s worth asking about.

Also recognize that your direct manager may not have as much power as you think they do (or should). Some companies don’t share compensation information with line managers, and HR directly handles all offer letters and compensation negotiations. There may also be policies in place that bar your manager from making a correction (capping percentage salary increases, capping compensation bands, requiring that all changes happen in a certain time window, etc.).

Build a case

As you get answers to your open questions with your sponsor, you can determine what your (and their) strategy should be to move forward. You may find out information that doesn’t feel fair but appears to be an immovable business decision (like the company pays people with a PhD more than those who don’t, or the company pays people who work SF or NY more than those who don’t).

If you determine that your sponsor should advocate on your behalf, equip them with information they can use in a case for a correction. Give them details like “my peer and I have both worked here for N years”, “we have both shipped XYZ projects”, and “we have both received promotions at the same time”. Your sponsor will want to build a case for fairness in pay across equivalent skill, tenure, level, etc. - which will hopefully combat any arguments based on unconscious biases from those who made the original compensation decision.

What if you’re the sponsor or manager?

Read Jason Wong’s post on Effecting Behavioral Change, especially the section on compensation calibrations.

Read my post on compensation and promotion fairness and corrections.

Approach every compensation decision with the fear, “what if this number gets shared publicly with the rest of the team?”

Incentivize your management peers and HR to evaluate compensation fairness and correct gaps.

Don’t hedge your bets on a new hire by lowering their starting salary. If you fear a new hire won’t work out or be as effective as another, develop better performance improvement and/or termination processes.

Share how much you make, and/or how much you’ve seen offered for equivalent jobs, with your peers (especially those who are members of underrepresented groups in your industry).


1 If you’re wondering “why an immediate correction, rather than incrementally over time?”, read my post on comp corrections, and the “Compensation Calibration” section of Jason Wong’s post.

Lara Callender Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.