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Equality for the Taking

What can working women do right now?

For most of my career in corporate HR, my functional title was Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP). In that role, and at various levels (Generalist through Director), my job was to 1.) Be a partner to leaders who managed and made decisions about staff; 2.) Pursue strategic corporate objectives through workforce planning; 3.) Work as an employee advocate in situations where an employee, who would otherwise be successful, required an intervention. At every level of my career in this function, my perspective has centered around the guiding principle of treating employees like adults, providing information, encouraging dialogue and respecting employees’ personal decisions. That said, my approach to coaching employees, from frontline workers to executives, usually starts with breaking down existing options, thinking about the ultimate goal and then pursuing the option that best aligns with the goal, given the circumstances.

Since President Obama’s signing of the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, numerous studies have focused on what can be done to close wage gaps between men and women in the workforce. Everything from steering young women into STEM careers to urging companies to conduct pay equity reviews has surfaced as ways to combat the issue. These recent actions to address pay equity had been long-coming though because for years, many other workplace inequality matters emerged for dialogue and problem-solving: career mobility limitations, intersectionality of race and gender, and the high rate of poverty for women who retire, to name a few. Add to this list the #metoo and hostile work environment crises and we have a pretty full agenda to address. Law-makers and employers have the data they need to justify working on corrective measures for any of these problems. However, the most immediate and impactful way to reduce the numerous equity issues facing working women is for us to recognize our own power, stop settling for less and avidly support each other in challenging infrastructure that works against inclusion.

In my position as HRBP, working for corporate employers, I couldn’t lean entirely into the employee advocate part of my role. I wasn’t there just to advise, counsel, and help to fix employee issues; There were other objectives I had to meet. However, now that I run my own business, I can leverage what I know and talk openly about what I feel is important. And I want to remedy this inequity problem for women- women of color, in particular- so badly! So here are a few ways you can pursue a more equitable and fulfilling (equality is the baseline to me) work experience at every phase of your career.

Retirement Stage/If you are making a career shift out of the workplace:

While being trailblazers, assimilation and proving oneself worthy seems to be a common theme in your stories. The idea that the standards set by men in the workplaces of the 60s, 70s and 80s were unquestionable, something to work towards, signaled that the “special”’ needs of some women (for maternity leave or elder-care, healthcare, etc.) were extraordinary. Through careful planning, having tough skin and making many personal sacrifices, you cracked most and broke many ceilings. However, due to persistent wage gaps, enduring the “motherhood penalty” of being passed over or paid less because you needed to periodically stop working and perhaps feeling afraid to seek increased wages because you didn’t want to “rock the boat” or appear greedy, more than half of women who retire now face the possibility of poverty, outliving their savings and unable to make much of their social security pay.

If you are nearing or upon your retirement years, there’s no time to lose in planning for your future, ma’am. Politeness and humility be damned; You’re going to have to be clear about what you want, and I encourage you to ask for it directly.

  • Let your HR person and/or manager know that you’re in the process of planning your retirement and need to ensure your financial well-being. Discuss the work you enjoy, other ways you can see yourself contributing (maybe mentoring) before you depart, and how you would like to work with leadership to identify ways you might be financially rewarded for extras support you can offer before you depart. For example, if you’ve been a volunteer for the company picnic, ask for a recognition bonus for your work this time around. If your company recruits at colleges, ask if you might join that team and receive a bonus for assisting.
  • Ask about a severance package. If you’ve been a steady, on-target or strong performer, you may be able to work it out with your manager and HR person so that you can be moved into a position that is likely to be eliminated, making you eligible for a severance package. In some cases, the severance policy may be more flexible, but asking to move into a position planned for job elimination is a good tactic for negotiating a severance package.
  • Ask about increasing your salary to the highest quartile in your salary range/band with your intention to depart within the next year. The increase can be gradual- perhaps quarterly- but this will help in social security determinations and you’ll be able to contribute more to your savings plans. Having a timeframe will also be helpful for the finance team to plan the budget and count on you to come off payroll at a specified time. This may sound far-fetched, but you’d be giving the employer permission to: plan for succession; leverage your willingness to transfer your knowledge; and move the needle on gender and age pay equity issues, possibly becoming a more competitive employer for attracting older workers if they made this into a practice. This could be a win-win.

As a member of the generation that did so much to pave the way for other women in the workplace, you shouldn’t have to continue to sacrifice in retirement. Make yourself the last person you want to let down and start focusing on how you might get the most out of your remaining years in the workforce.

Entry-Early Career/If you are just getting started:

Part of millennial generation? Congratulations! You now make up most of the workforce and women in your generation will only encounter a workforce where about half of the US labor market is made up of women. Breaking glass ceilings is expected and women in STEM careers have hit an all-time high. However, the pay gap is on track to continually increase for your generation. That’s crazy! You must get in front of this. Your generation has been mislabeled as “entitled” because you have simply refused to accept the status quo as absolute. Take that same attitude of not accepting the status quo and make sure that you are paid at least as much as your male counterparts. The generations before you have shown you how to get the “seat at the table.” One you get that seat, make sure the portions on your plate are bigger and you get exactly what you ordered.

  • Recognize your power as an adult. Helicopter parenting and the “everybody gets a trophy” lifestyle may have dulled your self-care senses. It’s up to you to create the type of work environment you want to have. If the pay and/or environment in a workplace is not suitable for the long-term, seek better employers that match your expectations and be vocal about it. Previous generations have made the mistake of conforming to standards that were created without any regard to women’s various lifestyles. Just because something has been a particular way for a long time doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t and can’t change.
  • Keep developing your skillsets. As the most tech-savvy generation in the workforce, use your superior research skills to find out how others in your industry and with your skills are paid and then expect to be paid amongst the highest. If your current company can’t or won’t match that, look elsewhere. Market pay is driven by what workers accept. If you accept less, you aid in keeping market pay lower. Leave altruistic values for your charity work. In the workplace, women need to be a lot less generous with our time and talents- especially in places that do not afford benefits that are financially supportive of the realities of our lives. If you have the top skills and deliver the best work, you will be in demand. Make that work to your own personal advantage.
  • Make life decisions that protect and enhance your earning power. Seek out employers that offer flexible work solutions, paid maternity leave and/or childcare and eldercare options. If you’re working for a company that doesn’t provide those benefits, guard your energy and direct some of your time to other income pursuits. If one employer cannot meet your income requirements and you’re giving 100% of your effort and expertise, that’s a mismatch. Hold something back if you’re not getting what you need financially. Focus some of your reserved efforts on seeking employers who pay more competitively or improving your skills so that you can move to a position that commands a higher salary. You’re going to have to manage your personal resources to support the lifestyle you want.

The best thing about your generation is that you have already changed the culture so much that shaping a new and inclusive landscape in the workplace is totally within your power and capability. There may be sacrifices at first, but like most of what you do, the trend will catch on and it will benefit all women going forward.

Mid-Career and Executives/ You’ve been working for a while and know that things need to be better:

The elephant in the room is that we often hold each other back. It’s time to let our confidence shine already! Evolve your thinking and stop working so hard to maintain barriers for other women, pretending that “objective” standards are so. Younger women do not need to go through what you went through, and women who don’t look, dress, act or speak like you don’t require your coaching to change themselves to meet the standards you’ve adopted for yourself. Haven’t you ever questioned the purpose of those old standards? Can you see past them and strive to create systems that are inclusive and support the needs of women? There is not one model for a successful woman who deserves higher pay. Let’s try working on being inclusive within our own womanhood for a while and see what changes we can create.

  • Resist conditioning to compete with and judge other women for the attention and acceptance of men. Question your value systems and why you may have accepted the idea that women need to bring more evidence of their value than men (this is even more aptly applied to women of color). How many things are you censoring about other women to maintain the status quo? What good are you in your position if you don’t change the standards for inclusion? We don’t need more figureheads. Broaden your perspective on what is valuable and be vocal in your support for women who look, dress and act differently. Don’t give license to men or other women to shut another woman down or devalue her because of characteristics that have been normalized as inferior. Devaluing other women because of their differences or distance from conforming to the status quo holds us all back because it works to justify immobilizing us in our careers and paying us less.

As best practices and more inclusive policies emerge in legislation and employee handbooks, we have the power to simultaneously work on creating the work environments we want for ourselves. We need to dream bigger and remove the confines of merely fixing the broken things. We can do much more than that. We can reinvent the workplace. The highest pay and equitable work environments can be ours if we continuously demand it and leverage our power by only giving our time and talents to employers who pay and treat us like we’re valued. Collaboration is essential, so I urge you to find other women in your industry and at your career stage and work together to develop strategies for getting what we need out of US workplaces. We are who we are waiting for. Let’s work better.

Heather McCollum is the author of “Work Like a Pro: Your Guide to Finding, Accepting and Starting a New Job,” which is highly recommended for anyone who is currently in a work transition or in the midst of building their career. It can be purchased and downloaded through the Kindle app: (https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B07G5RB4QR&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_r3SGBbBYKJTVJ). She’s also the Founder and Chief Facilitation Officer of Better HR (mybetterhr.com), which provides HR leadership guidance and tools to small emerging businesses and helps workers navigate their employment relationships through virtual group coaching.

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