Women, stop asking women to work for free

The road to pay equity begins with us

By Roshini Rajkumar

Could women be the root cause of the gender pay gap? I’m no economist, but I am a business woman and media insider who has seen a lot, interviewed thousands and studied the effects of payment conversations on women — both as buyers and sellers.

As an executive coach, I’ve advised both female and male leaders on high-stakes conversations and compensation packages. Men have no qualms about asking for and getting what they are worth. But some women contemplate turning down proposed add-ons or title upgrades because they don’t think the company should make the investment. Seriously? These attitudes can only help sustain the gap. Professor Emerita Jenny Keil of Hamline University says, “Men expect to negotiate salary; and often, women don’t ask for what they’re worth at the outset or for a raise at appropriate times.”

The stats

The United States Census Bureau says the average American woman makes 80% of what an American man makes. State by state, New York has the smallest gap — 89%. In Minnesota it’s 81% and in Wyoming, only 64%. For African American women earn about 62 cents compared with the dollar a white male earns.

In practice

The numbers tell various stories, but where do we begin? Let’s go to the real world. Are you ever faced with a female boss who offers you a title upgrade with no salary increase? Do you find yourself in the role of mentor or manager who suggests a female employee takes a job for the “experience” regardless of how well it pays? Some business owners theorize, “I’ll give my client a discount this time to get in the door. After that, I’ll make sure I get my true value.” That’s the first misstep in a journey that keeps you in the 80 cents-or-less-on-the-dollar lane. If you want to donate your time and talents out of the goodness of your heart, that’s your choice. But that shouldn’t be the norm in business.

As a professional speaker, I’ve often faced conversations like this: An event planner calls, wanting me to give my “Own Your WOW!™” keynote at her organization’s event. When I ask about budget, she says, “We have no budget,” or, “We’re not paying the keynote speaker, but this would be great exposure for you.”

Issue #1: This event planner loses credibility because she is not respecting the value of the program she requested or the intellectual property behind it.

Issue #2: She now contributes to the larger problem of de-valuing women’s work product and time. I’ve learned the hard way from my early days as a business owner that “exposure” never pays bills. Also, once someone gets your services and products for low or no cost, it’s even greater sticker shock to them when they come back for another engagement, and you try charging your real rates. You lowered your own bar. You now have a major decision to make. Do you say yes and contribute to the problem? Or do you value your brand, time and services by suggesting they come back to you when they have budget to pay you?

The theory

In any conversation where someone asks for services at less than market value, both parties bear responsibility. As we fight for pay equity, it undercuts fight when women are players on both sides. The woman who asks a woman to work for free or at a discount bears half the blame. The woman who says yes to discounting or comping her services is the other half of the problem. I’ve been developing, observing and researching this theory for years. Due to historic and cultural factors combined with layers of people involved across varying industries, I may never find scientific proof. But this isn’t rocket science. It’s the real world. On which side of the equation do you fall?

Men are shocked

In the words of a valued male advisor: “Are you the best at what you do? Then why would you work for free?” Men are stunned by these money scenarios and tell me they are rarely asked for a discount or to work for free. And guess what? They would just say no. Men have fewer qualms with getting fired if they don’t agree with a work environment and will more easily walk from a situation in search of greener pastures when the money isn’t right.

Go out and ask for what you deserve! If you’re in a position to hire, think twice before low-balling the sisterhood.

Roshini Rajkumar is a presence engineer and licensed attorney. She hosts News & Views with Roshini Rajkumar on WCCO Radio. She also works as an executive coach, a conference speaker and is the author of Communicate That!, now in its third edition.