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What to Do If You’re Paid Less Than a Male Co-Worker

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

If you suspect you’re being paid less than a male co-worker for the same work, you can raise the issue with your employer and insist that your company follow the law — which says that paying men and women differently for the same work performance is illegal. Here’s a step-by-step action plan for how to raise the issue — and what to do if that doesn’t work.

1. Find out if you’re earning less than your male co-workers.

One of the tricky things about pay inequality is that many of us have internalized the idea that we’re not supposed to talk to our co-workers about what we earn. In fact, it’s common for employers to have policies that explicitly forbid this — even though federal law says those policies are illegal for non-supervisory employees. And as a society, we’re weirdly squeamish about money, so there can be a high psychological barrier to asking colleagues outright what they’re earning.

But it’s extremely difficult to combat pay inequality if no one is willing to share what they’re earning, so it’s worth working to overcome that discomfort and to cultivate a culture of openness about money with friends and colleagues. If you’re not sure how to broach the topic, it can help to be transparent about why you’re asking. For example, you might say: “Confidentially, I’m worried there might be some gender or racial inequities in our pay structures. Would you be willing to share what you’re making so I can have more information about this?”

2. Know the law.

Sometimes women who find out that a male co-worker is being paid more than them wonder if there’s a nondiscriminatory explanation for the difference: Maybe he negotiated better when he was hired, or he came from a higher-paying previous job, or he’s being groomed for management.

But none of those possibilities change the fact that if you’re doing basically the same work, getting paid a significantly different salary violates the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963. (The law does make exceptions if the employer can prove they’re paying someone more due to seniority or a merit system.) Also, paying men and women differently for the same work is illegal even if the employer doesn’t intend to discriminate. This means that you don’t need to prove that your employer intended to discriminate against women, just that men and women are in fact being paid differently for the same work.

3. Analyze the facts objectively.

There are legitimate and legal reasons why a male co-worker doing similar work might be earning more than you — if he’s producing a higher level of work (which could include things like managing more people or bringing in more clients) or if he came in with a particular type of experience or educational background related to the work, for example. But if you take an objective look at your work and qualifications versus your co-worker’s and don’t see an explanation for the difference in pay, it might indeed be as simple as a gender gap, and it’s worth raising the issue with your employer.

4. Talk to your boss first.

If your boss is reasonable, it makes sense to start with them (as opposed to HR, although you can take things to HR as a second step). Ask to meet with your boss; in the meeting, say something like: “I’m concerned about the salary disparity between me and George, and I’m concerned that we’re violating the Equal Pay Act by paying a man and a woman so differently for the same work. Can you help me understand why our salaries are so different?”

Note the “we” here — as in “we’re violating.” That’s deliberate, because it makes the conversation feel more collaborative and less adversarial. You want the tone to be the same one you’d use if you were raising a less personal work concern; you want it to seem like you’re looking out for the company’s best interests rather than making an overt legal threat. There’s still the subtext of potential legal action, but starting out this way lowers the heat and gives you a better chance of a good outcome.

The other benefit of starting the conversation this way — seeking to understand rather than being accusatory — is that there might be logical explanations for the pay gap that you’d find reasonable if you knew about them. You can always escalate the seriousness of your tone if that doesn’t happen.

5. Don’t answer questions about how you know someone else’s salary.

Some managers in this situation will get sidetracked on how you even know what a co-worker makes and may try to tell you that you shouldn’t be discussing salary with co-workers at all because the company considers that private information. If that happens, say something like, “For the purpose of this conversation, the issue I’m concerned about is the pay disparity. Can you help me understand that?” Stick to that stance if your boss keeps asking how you know.

6. If needed, take it to HR.

If you’re not able to resolve the issue by talking with your manager, your next option is to raise the issue with HR. You could also start with HR if you don’t trust your boss to handle this well, and if you have a decent HR department, they should be trained to realize that gender pay gaps can pose real legal problems for the company if not addressed.

At the end of the meeting with your boss or with HR, ask when you should expect to hear back from them, so you have a timeline for when you should follow up if you haven’t heard anything.

7. If the issue remains unresolved, you have legal recourse.

If you don’t get (a) a satisfying explanation of why your co-worker is being paid so differently than you, or (b) an increase to your pay to bring you up to the same level, you have legal recourse. You can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (no lawyer necessary!), and they’ll at least make an initial investigation of the complaint. (There’s information here about how to start the process and what to expect.)

Or you might find it helpful to talk over your options with a lawyer. That won’t necessarily mean suing your company; often lawyers are great for just advising you on how to negotiate. To find an attorney who specializes in employment issues, contact your state bar association, the National Employment Lawyers Exchange, or use Workplace Fairness’ referral service.

Good luck!

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email

What to Do If You’re Paid Less Than a Male Co-Worker