equal pay day

3 Women on What Happened When They Asked for a Raise

Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

In honor of equal pay day, the Cut is sharing three stories from women who decided to ask for more money at work.

I Got Double What I Asked For

I started teaching almost 20 years ago. I had never asked for a raise. I had never asked for anything. My yearly pay increases happened automatically, because the faculty gets cost-of-living raises, and I also got a raise when I was promoted. But I never had a conversation about money with anyone. I don’t even think I negotiated when I got hired. I think I was just like, “What will you pay me?” I just felt grateful they were hiring me, this idiot.

It wasn’t until I was getting a divorce, which was about three years ago, that I realized that I actually needed money really badly. I was freaked out. So I went and did all this research about asking for raises at work. I read Linda Babcock’s book Ask For It or Women Don’t Ask, or whatever it was called — one of those books about how women consistently just do not ask for raises, while men are apparently always in their bosses’ offices getting one every five seconds.

I followed the book and did all this stuff to prepare, then screwed up my courage and sat down with my dean. I tried to be straightforward and do whatever Linda Babcock told me to do. I resisted the urge to say, “I’m sorry, I suck and don’t deserve a raise,” and I just said, “I need a raise.” He asked me, “How much are you making now?” I told him, and I saw his face fall. He couldn’t hide his surprise. I realized immediately that I was underpaid. He asked me how much I needed, I told him, and he said, “Let me review this.”

A couple of weeks later he called me back into his office and said “Here’s what I’m going to do for you,” and it was double what I asked for. I don’t think I got double because of my talent, but because I had been so underpaid. I’d been so busy being a good girl, sitting there waiting for somebody to notice how good I was and give me a reward. But the truth is, I’m in a big faculty in a big university and no one cares, no one was looking. I’m really happy I got the raise, although I actually wish I’d gotten equal pay all those years in between. I was so busy believing, “If I’m just a little more perfect, someone will notice.”

It was really my kids who were the motivating factor for asking in the first place. It was my fear about keeping things afloat for them after my divorce that made me do one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done in my life. It killed me to have to do that. I felt transgressive — I’d sooner have taken off all my clothes and walked down the street than gone and asked someone for money. But I did it. And I just gave Linda Babcock’s book to a 28-year-old I know. Because I know this is not my problem. This is a pervasive issue.

My Boss Called Me a Bitch When I Asked for Equal Pay

In the ’90s, I got hired as a senior editor at a midsize publication, and I didn’t have a huge amount of experience. They sort of took a leap on me. At some point during my first year, I discovered that all the [other] senior editors were making a lot more than I was.

I was kind of shocked. They were all men. I went to my boss and I said, “Hey, I discovered this. Why am I making less?” He said, “Well, listen, you don’t have a lot of experience — you don’t have as much experience as they do — but I’m expecting really great things from you. And if you do everything I think you’re going to do in the next year, you’ll get a huge raise.” So then I did all the big things they expected. I couldn’t have done anything bigger. I took over a major project and turned it around. My responsibilities expanded exponentially.

When it came time for my annual review, my boss took me to lunch at a fancy restaurant. I was really impressed; I had never had an editor take me out like that. He said, “You’re doing such a great job. I think you’ll be happy with this raise.” And then he wrote down the number on a napkin — really kind of schmoozy, like, We’re in the big time — and he seemed really pleased with himself. But the number was, like, a couple thousand dollars more, maybe five.

My face just kinda fell. I stared at the number, and I looked back at him and said, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m kind of disappointed. This is not what I was expecting.” He seemed really, really annoyed. Was he expecting me to thank him, and bat my eyelashes at him, and go “You’re my hero”? I’d done all the things that they had expected of me. So I just said, “Can you find more? You said that if I did everything you expected, I’d have a big raise.” And he was just like, “Well, I thought this [offer] was really good.” It was super-awkward. I remember saying, “Can you go back?” I could never have imagined myself saying that.

Well, he did find more. And I did get a raise that got me closer to the salaries of the men. But my boss was really pissy about it. For years afterward, he would say things like, “Oh, well, I don’t want to get you mad. You’re scary when you’re mad. I still remember that time I gave you a raise, and you didn’t like it. You were such a bitch. I don’t want to bring that out.”

It was never in front of other people and it was always in jest, but it was always shocking to me. He would actually say, “You were such a bitch.” He would say, “You made me feel so bad. I thought I was doing this nice thing for you. It made me feel so bad.” I never understood how I did that. I replayed our lunch over and over. It’s not like I threw a glass of water in his face. I didn’t do anything. I sat at his table and said, “I’m really disappointed. Please increase my raise.” It was really bizarre, and it has stayed with me my entire life. I don’t think it has ever stopped me from speaking up, but it has made me incredibly aware that, in any interaction, what you’re saying is not necessarily what someone else is hearing. You can’t really control it, and it is awful. To be called a bitch, or to be called aggressive, is not terrible, but to be called that when I was trying to be straightforward and professional, and to have that be twisted into something else, is kind of a memorable experience.

If I went back to him now, he would never remember this. He would be appalled. I’m sure it’s been deleted from his memory bank. But now, when I hear women talking about leaning in, saying “Always ask for more money, always push,” I say, “Yeah, you absolutely should. You should know that you always have the right to ask for more money.”

I Didn’t Get What I Wanted, But I’m Better Off Now

I was working in a support role at an independent investment firm which prided itself on its progressive values and progressive investment strategies. They were making a lot of money.

I was at the job so I could save enough for a year’s expenses and work as an artist.

I had been there almost five years when my colleague, another support person, quit. When she did, I told my bosses “I can handle doing both jobs, but I’m going to start getting burnt out really soon.” They assured me they would hire someone as soon as possible and thanked me for my honesty.

So they started the process of hiring a replacement for her, and I started doing her job on top of mine. I was brought on to work three days a week, and my hours instantly almost doubled. I was working from home. I was working on my days off. I was working all the time. I kept getting assured that it would get fixed, and there were all these excuses and starts and stops with the hiring process — it went on for over a year and a half. And I was getting frustrated. They gave me a little bonus, but it wasn’t very much. It just wasn’t a workable situation, financially. I did some research on someone with my duties, and I was actually getting underpaid with just my initial job.

I was starting to get resentful. On top of doing two people’s jobs, my boss was giving me the runaround. We would bring in job candidates and he would find reasons not to like them. Finally I reached out to some higher-ups and I was like, “Look, guys, this is not okay. We need to figure out a way to find another person to fill the second position, because I cannot do this anymore.” I said I’d love to be made full-time. I wanted more money. I made up a job description, but they kept delaying and giving me the runaround. I was growing increasingly unhappy.

Then, one day, I get called in and they’re like, “Yeah, we’ve decided to eliminate your position.” That was it. I was laid off. But rather than being devastated, it was a boon. We negotiated my exit deal. They bought out the rest of my contract — and because I hadn’t taken any time off the whole time I was there, I earned several weeks of vacation days back. The payout ended up putting me way over what I was trying to save for. Even though the last six to eight months of it were hell, I have to say, it couldn’t have worked out any better. I don’t regret any of it. I definitely don’t regret standing up for myself.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s really nice to be doing exactly what I want. I’m fully pursuing the creative career I want now, and I feel like there’s a level of honesty in my work life that I just didn’t have before — and that’s really important to me.

3 Women on What Happened When They Asked for a Raise