What happened when I found out my colleague was paid 47% more than me
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It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was talking to my parents on the phone, holding my 10 month old baby, looking out the window. My parents were on speaker phone. They had been at a dinner party the night before and people were talking about pay and the pay of public employees. My mom was looking up the salaries of public employees, looking to see if she could figure out what my boss was paid. She couldn’t find her in the database, so I started sharing the names of other people I knew and thought should be on the list. She found some of the names, but not others. I named my counterpart, a woman with virtual the same job as me. My mom looked her up in the system. There was a moment of silent. My mom made an awkward laugh and asked me if I was sitting down.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, you might not want to know this”, she mom responded.
“What do you mean? What does she make?” I had been only been giving the conversation half of my attention. Suddenly I was totally focused on what my mom had to say.
Then my mom shared the number. It was big. MUCH bigger than what I made. I switched my phone to calculator.
My colleague was making 47% more money than me.
I was floored. I couldn’t even believe it. I sorted of laughed about it on the phone. Then I got off the phone and felt like I had been punched in the gut.
I put Michael, my baby, in the stroller and went for a walk. I think best when I’m walking (or in the shower). I went to text a friend, but I couldn’t even do it. I felt embarrassed. Overwhelmed. Stupid. My mind was racing. I couldn’t process this information.
My colleague and I had similar jobs. I had a team of 20 full-time and 4 part-time staff. She had a team of 13 full-time and 18 part-time staff. We both had PhDs, she got hers 3 years before me. I had been in my job 6.5 years, she had been there 8. We both managed millions of dollars in grants and consulting contracts. I thought she would be paid more than me, but maybe 5-15%, not 47%. I ran through all these numbers, all of these comparisons. Nothing could rationalize this difference. NOTHING.
Later that day I opened the database and pulled up my colleague’s salaries for the past few years. I was astonished. Flabbergasted. If I had been paid what she was paid, we would have paid off our mortgage already.
Over the next few days and weeks, something unexpected happened. I got angry. Really ANGRY. I’m not an angry person, this is a super unusual emotion for me. It was hard and uncomfortable. I felt stupid, really stupid, and embarrassed. I was an intelligent, well-educated woman. How could I let this happen?
Then my anger turned into something productive – I started doing research. I am a researcher, finally I felt in control again. I researched everything I could about women, leadership, money, pay gaps, careers… I learned so much.
Then I came across a book that transformed my thinking, Amanda Steinberg’s Worth It: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms.
Amanda made me re-think my relationship with money. She has this amazing chapter that describes how we have money stories that start in childhood and affect how we treat money. For example, you might believe and tell yourselves that you are a spender, not a saver. You might believe that women should be taken care of an not have to think about money. You might think that if you work hard, you deserve to splurge on the things you love. You might believe that it’s important to always by things of high value, because it shows that you value yourself. My story came to me fast than I expected, since childhood the story in the back of my mind was:
"If I work hard and don't complain, people will give me what I deserve."
For years this worked well for me. In high school, college, and even grad school, working hard and not complaining opened doors and gave me great opportunities. Before I even finished my PhD, I had great work experience, amazing references, and got 4 job offers.
It never occurred to me that this money story wouldn’t also be helpful in the work world. I didn’t realize this meant that I wasn't advocating for myself. I worked the same job for 6.5 years. I got one promotion that I didn't even ask for. The promotion came with the one and only raise I received in 6.5 years (other than cost of living increases).
Then my salary stagnated there. I didn’t stagnate, I grew the team from 0 to 20 employees. I managed over $2.5 million in grants and contracts a year. I never asked for more money. I assumed if I they could give me more and I deserved more, they would give it to me.
Looking back, I see how ridiculous this was. But it was so deeply ingrained in me to be a "good girl" that it never occurred to me that I could work hard, not complain, and advocated for myself.
When I first read about “money stories” in Worth It and thought about my own, I became discouraged. But now I see that I shouldn’t be discouraged, I should feel liberated. I have a chance to change my money story. I can change my future.
That’s what I’m about to do, I’m about to quit my job and rewrite my money story.