I have an MBA, twenty years of experience in my field, and was the only woman in the sea of men to earn a spot on my company’s management team. After returning from an extended maternity leave and fighting hard to regain my place on the career ladder, I felt like an inspiration to the hundreds of women working around me: I was proof positive that they too could aspire to and reach the highest levels.
Then an email pulled the rug out from underneath me.
Nothing in my education or years in the office prepared me for the day I realized my male colleagues were being paid 50% to 100% more than I was.
Being the odd woman out
The email thread began with a request from a fellow board member for the number of employees we had in each band of our pay scale. Pay scales are designed to ensure that each role is graded fairly and impartially. However, the reply to his note told a different story.
At the highest band of our company’s pay scale, there was one less person than the number of people on our management team — that’s when I knew I was the odd woman out.
The first person I told was my husband. While he was sympathetic and angry, he was also nervous. “We can’t afford for you to lose your job. You don’t know what the salary gap is… if it’s only a few thousand dollars, is it worth potentially ruining your career there?”
I needed to gather more data, so I turned to the short list of colleagues who I knew I could completely trust. Outside of the office I asked each individual, “Do you remember that pay scale email? I’m not on the same pay level as you. This is my salary, do you make more?”
The moment of truth
When I found out my colleagues were paid between 50% to 100% more than I was — we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars more — I was livid, stunned and devastated. I felt sick. I felt betrayed.
For years I sat at the same table, attended the same conferences and tackled the same challenges as the men by my side. Now I was being told that my contributions to the organization were worth a fraction of theirs.
I wanted to rush into the building, grab the coffee mug and family photo from my desk and run out screaming. Instead, I hired a female employment lawyer who knew my company well.
Heading into battle
In our very first meeting, my lawyer looked at me across her desk and said, “Nearly every woman who files an equal pay claim ends up leaving her job. Regardless of the outcome. Are you prepared to walk away?”
I nodded, my throat tight at the thought of abandoning my career and starting fresh somewhere else. I replied, “I don’t see how I could stay there, knowing what I now know. But I’m not walking away without the money I am due.” The battle was on.
I used social media to put subtle pressure on the company. I would write, “I ran into a woman at an event and she told me the craziest story…” and then I would lay out my own details for everyone to see. Comments flooded in, even from fellow employees who had no idea that the “woman” in my post was actually me.
Those comments gave me light in the darkest moments. They also reminded the faceless company that I was not going down without a fight.
Here’s what else I realized: There is no glory for a company that gets taken to court over equal pay. Even if they ultimately win, the damage along the way cannot be ignored. They may have the power of size and money, but I had power, too: Investors and future employees would hear my voice and would potentially decide to put their money and time elsewhere.
The reality of fighting for what’s fair
Here is what no one will tell you about fighting an equal pay claim: It is a waiting game. The company — emotionless and faceless — will drag out every single meeting and deliverable, hoping that you will succumb to the anger and leave without costing them one cent.
Six months passed between the day I realized I was underpaid and the last day I went into the office. Each and every day, I woke up, got dressed and went into my job.
Months of stall tactics, negotiation, threats and waiting… and finally we reached agreement over my settlement amount. In exchange for me leaving my job immediately and agreeing never to work for them again, for keeping quiet and saying nary a negative word, they would pay me all of the back pay I was owed.
It hardly seems fair, and yet I celebrated, I wept with joy. But the battle did not come without injury.
During the equal pay ordeal, my health unraveled with the stress, and my family walked on eggshells for months. I had nightmares; sometimes I still do. But that settlement money became a nest-egg, affording me time to stay home and grieve, to rebuild my confidence and lick my wounds.
I fought because I could
Why did I stay and fight for what was right? Because I am one of the lucky ones. I have a supportive spouse. I had money to pay for legal support. I could feel the anger of millions of women around the world, who have been slighted, harassed and held back, and it powered me on the days I felt I couldn’t go on.
I also had some great colleagues — both male and female — who worked behind the scenes to provide ammunition and support. They shared their own salaries and confirmed my suspicions. I could not have proven my case and received a settlement without the help of these silent supporters.
I won the battle for back pay, and I came out a new woman. My blind optimism has been burned away, but I am stronger than ever before.
(Editor’s note: This story is published anonymously at the author’s request in order to comply with her settlement agreement. “This is my way of regaining my voice and helping other women who might be going through the same,” she says. If you have experienced gender discrimination and want to share your story with the HerMoney community, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
More on HerMoney:
- Podcast: How to Close the Gender Pay Gap Once and For All
- HerMoney Water Cooler: Should You Disclose Your Salary To Your Friends?
- 7 Female Leaders on How To Define Your Worth
Join us in the private HerMoney Facebook group – where we’re having an ongoing conversation about all things finance in a judgment-free zone.