How every working woman can begin to close the wage gap

Image: A woman works from home
Women make far less than men, whether they're in the office or working freelance from home. Copyright Onest Mistic Getty Images
By Sarah Watts with NBC News
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These habits will instantly put more money in your pocket.

If you're a working woman, you already know that we earn substantially less than men in nearly every industry. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, white women earned $0.79 for every dollar that a white male earned in 2016. What's worse, black women earned $0.62, while Latina women earned a paltry $0.54. In my industry — journalism — things are, sadly, no different: Women make far less than men, whether they're inside the newsroom or working freelance, from home, like myself.

In part, we have institutional racism and sexism to thank for the wage gap. Black and Latina women are routinely passed over for entry-level jobs and in-office promotions thanks to unconscious (or conscious) biases, and women of all races are statistically less likely to be hired over a man.

But what's also to blame is our culture, which socializes women to ask for (and be happy with) much less than men. Three separate studies published in the Harvard Business Review found that men negotiate much more frequently than do women, and are much less likely to accept unfair payment. You can hardly blame women for backing down, however — the same review found that ambitious women are quickly stigmatized, and are penalized for ambitious behavior, rather than rewarded.

Studies may show that women are often penalized for ambitious behavior — but our financial reality has created an urgency in me.

Sociologists have a lot of recommendations for how to close the wage gap, whether it's instituting new legislation or simply making an effort to hire more women. But progress moves at a glacial pace, and in the meantime, I have bills to pay. A disastrous 2017 has resulted in $10,000 in medical expenses, thousands in car repairs for our aging Honda Pilot, and thousands in home repairs to cover our busted furnace and our leaking roof.

Studies may show that women are often penalized for ambitious behavior — but our financial reality has created an urgency in me. I can no longer afford to be embarrassed to ask for what I need — be it more money, more clients, or more work. Our family simply doesn't have the luxury of playing by the old rules. We have a roof to pay off.

To fix this — to pay off our medical bills and, in a larger sense, to bridge the gap between what I'm paid and what a male colleague is paid for the same work — I've created a series of rules for myself. These help me earn more, retain the rights to my work and get paid faster.

The $50 rule

In my writing circles, we have a saying: "Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man." The joke is that white men — even under-qualified or inept white men — often get higher pay, simply because they're not afraid to ask. So every time I pitch a new client, or a client comes to me with an assignment, I ask for at least $50 more than what she's offered, on every single job, even if the offer is a good one. Nine times out of ten, I get an answer in the affirmative. In the rare case that the client can't move the budget, they often give me a concession — a more flexible due date or less work for the same rate. So far this year, I have managed to make $450 more than what I would have if I had just taken what the client had initially offered. It adds up — and fast.

Pay in cash, when possible

In order to keep more of my hard-won money, I pay cash for everything I possibly can. And when you deal in cash, I've found that that gives you more flexibility than you would normally have. Last year, for instance, an enormous hospital bill landed in my mailbox. When I called up the billing department, I asked if they could cut me a deal — how much would they take off the final bill, if I could pay in cash right then? Immediately, they were able to slash the bill by 30 percent, saving me over $1200, all told. Paying in cash doesn't change how much I earn, obviously, but it changes how much I keep, which is essential to building wealth and being able to take more risks within my business.

Negotiate everything

Remember the confident, mediocre white man? The image I have in my head is a white guy who just asks for everything he possibly can — more money, sure, but also less expenses, different payment terms from his clients and even more interesting assignments from his editors. So I've made it my business (literally) to ask for all of these things as well. In my experience, most men don't expect women to negotiate terms or to counter what they've offered, so they either freeze up, or treat it as some adorable eccentricity. (When I negotiated the price for my new furnace, the male contractor was befuddled. "I've never had anyone give me a counter-offer," he said, surprised.) They're free to think what they want, as long as we can come to an agreement that benefits the both of us. If not, I move on.

Women at Work

Make friends (with other women)

The statistics have shown us that men dominate the top positions of pretty much every industry. When that happens, women tend to band together discreetly to share intel, support and advice — sometimes because our safety depends on it. In my own business, I've been invited to secret, women-only writers groups, and have benefited countless times from the female friendships, connections and job referrals I've found there. In fact, since I started writing for a living in 2015, nearly all of my income has come from women and non-binary folk who have taken a chance on my work. Men may dominate the industry — every industry — but women very often create a quiet subculture of support and success, for which I am thankful.

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