A few years ago when I worked in corporate accounting, my boss and I had a meeting to discuss my salary.
I knew what was coming. Our firm had recently gone through a merger, during which I went from being the only person in the company responsible for marketing to being one of about 20 people with my exact same role in different territories. I was making more than all of them. In some cases, almost double for the same work.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the folks at headquarters to pick up on the gap—it was an accounting firm, after all—and so the request came down for more “alignment” in my paycheck. The meeting with my boss was to determine how much. So he brought me into his private conference room, and he started to lay out the facts.
“Emily, as you know, since the merger, your role has changed a bit,” he said. “We now have more resources to help deliver the projects you worked on exclusively in the past. In looking at your compensation package compared with…”
Right then, without warning and without thinking, I burst out, “I know, I know. I make too much.”
It was supposed to be a joke (I guess), but my boss didn’t laugh.
Instead, he looked at me rather quizzically and said, “Well, actually I was about to say that everyone else with your level of responsibility makes too little.”
Great. Now I’m that girl: the one they talk about in workplace studies, the one they pull out of the research and say, “See?! Women really do have less confidence.”
Sadly, I haven’t gotten much better on this front. I still grossly undervalue my work, but I know I’m not alone. The question is: Why do women do this?
While everyone has different reasons, in my case, having a “poverty mentality” through childhood definitely carried over into adulthood. During my most formative years, I didn’t know anyone wealthy. Going “out to dinner” was Hardee’s and, at a particularly low point in college, I was rejected as a plasma donor on account of a freshly inked tattoo. When you’ve never had money, it can be super uncomfortable even to work around large dollar figures, much less ask for them.
Lately, though, it’s become increasingly clear that I’m meant to break this pattern.
At a recent dinner party, I met Debi Hemmeter, co-founder of Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit, LeanIn. Debi’s story of negotiating her salary early in her career is a must-read for every professional, regardless of gender. Debi chatted excitedly about how she used those same skills to garner her current role. “I watched Sheryl’s TED talk,” she said, “and just thought, ‘This needs to be so much bigger, and I can help.’” Debi knows her worth.
At the same party, I was seated next to Leslie Blodgett. When I asked what she did, she casually replied, “I co-founded Bare Escentuals makeup.”
“Oh, congratulations,” said another guest. “I read that sale was around $3 billion.”
“Actually,” said Leslie, “it was around $1.7.”
Just like that—no pretension or grandiosity. It was as if she’d said, “You know what? l would really love a Diet Coke right now.” Clearly, Leslie knows her worth.
I was surrounded by strong, amazing women, and I was reminded of a proposal my colleague Martha and I submitted just a few weeks earlier. When the client came back and said we could have the job if we cut our bid in half, I folded like a lawn chair.
Martha on the other hand, dug in her heels. “I’ve worked too long and too hard to break even on a job,” she said. “Our work is valuable, and we deserve to be paid for it.” Despite the fact that this was a huge opportunity with a marquee client, she was prepared to walk away. She knows her worth.
If we all knew more Debis, Leslies and Marthas, would standing up for our worth be so tough? I doubt it. I’m done selling myself short, and I’m done with telling other women to stand up for their value while being sheepish about my own. By saying it, I’m taking the first step to truly knowing my worth.
Now, it’s your turn. State your worth!
Have your own advice on how best to know what you’re worth and own it in the workplace? Share with us in the comments!
This post originally appeared on Levo League.
Emily Bennington specializes in two distinct forms of career transition: college students entering the workforce and women leaders entering executive management. She is the author of Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination, a co-author of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job and the founder of AWAKE EXEC mindful leadership coaching for professional women. She has led training programs for numerous Fortune 500 companies and has been featured in business press ranging from CNN, ABC and Fox to The Wall Street Journal, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. She can be reached online at www.emilybennington.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.