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Not So Fast

Jiab Wasserman  |  December 20, 2018

THE GENDER PAY gap is quantifiable. But there are also other, subtler forms of workplace discrimination that are harder to quantify, but which women face every day.

When I was part of a five-person analyst team, my manager invited everyone on the team to a poker night at his house—except me, the only female. When I asked why I was left out, he said the absence of women would make the guys feel freer to relax.

Another manager threatened to fire me when I asked to take a longer lunch break to attend my son’s sixth birthday party at his daycare center. While the manager approved my request unwillingly, his exact words were, “Next time, you will have to choose between being a mom and working here.”

My experience in the workplace is hardly unique. Women are more likely to be subjected to demeaning comments, have to provide more evidence of their competence, have their work contributions ignored and be seen as the “different” employee who makes others uncomfortable, while also getting less access to senior leaders.

Critics say the pay gap is due, in part, to women not asking for money as aggressively as men do. But even when women do, it’s often seen as arrogant, unfeminine and even “bitchy.” It’s also difficult for women to determine how much they are underpaid, as there’s little salary transparency in corporate America.

When I requested the salary range for my pay level, so I could know where I fell, both my manager and my manager’s manager informed me they didn’t have that information. My question was escalated to a human resources employee, who informed me I wasn’t privy to this information.

Over my career in financial services—where women typically earn 61% to 66% of what men do—I would occasionally ask for greater compensation or promotions after excellent performance reviews and after fulfilling the duties of a higher-level job. Some of the responses:

  • One of my male managers advised me to look for another job in another department, despite my top performance rating.
  • Another manager said that, despite excellent reviews, I’d have to continue proving to him and the rest of management that I could do the higher-level job for “a few more years” before they would give me the actual promotion.
  • When I asked for the promotion later, I was told that, although my manager totally agreed I’d been working hard, doing vice president-level work and deserved a promotion to that level, it would be better if I applied for the promotion by myself—rather than him promoting me—or, alternatively, apply for such a position at another company.

According to a 2018 survey of more than 64,000 workers by McKinsey & Co., performance perception bias helps explain early gaps in hiring and promotions, which then compound over a career. Research shows that we tend to overestimate men’s performance and underestimate women’s. Result: Men are often hired and promoted based on their potential, while women are often hired and promoted based on their track record.

During my career, I went through several corporate reorganizations, where I ended up training a new male manager, who often had no knowledge in the area to which he’d been promoted. For instance, when I worked as a strategy analyst, which requires a thorough understanding and familiarity with statistical analysis, the company promoted a male manager who knew nothing about strategy and struggled with statistical concepts. I had to tutor him. His exact words to me were “please dumb down your presentation,” so he could present it as his own in executive meetings. He was made manager of a complex analysis group at a top-three U.S. bank based solely on his “potential.”

Of course, a large banking institution, like the one I worked for, must be seen publicly as doing what it can to promote women and minorities. I was among a group of high-performance employees identified to join a special one-year leadership pipeline program designed to help the careers of minority employees. Yet one of the main messages echoed throughout the program was not that the bank would promote upward more fairly and without regard to gender or race, but that we should be happy to move laterally.

Jiab Wasserman recently retired at age 53 from her job as a financial analyst at a large bank. She and her husband, a retired high school teacher, currently live in Granada, Spain, and blog about financial and other aspects of retirement—as well as about relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com. This is the second article in a three-part series about the obstacles women face in the workplace. The first part was Mind the Gap.

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