How underrepresented workers can and should fight for equal pay

I understand adversity. I’ve lived it. I was raised by a single mother who emigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 18. She spent years moving from one low-paying job to the next. When I was in kindergarten, we lost our home. My mom, abuela, my two siblings, and I packed our things and moved in with my tia Alba.

I also understand resilience, it’s a lesson my mom taught me. When we were evicted, my Tia’s house became a stable, happy home. Then, against all odds, I watched my mom change her life by flourishing under a manager who believed in her.

Years later, after dropping out of high school, I saw that there’s more than one way to achieve an education. I got my GED and went on to graduate from the University of Texas.

When I entered the workforce, my need for resilience continued. Yes, I had a degree, but I also belong to a group that’s paid unfairly. In the U.S., Latinas are paid 45% less than white men and 30% less than white women. It’s a statistic that’s deeply impacted me and the family I support. I spent almost a decade working at a company earning 48% of what my white male counterparts made.

Today, some twenty years later, I’m a chief people officer at a fast-growth tech startup. A Cloud Guru is unlocking access to IT careers, driven by a mission I believe in wholeheartedly. Despite biases stacked against me, I’ve built a career I’m proud of, and I successfully closed my pay gap in the process.

I know human resources is often complicit in the systems fueling inequity. That’s exactly why I’m in the industry. I’m determined to influence change. We need to throw out antiquated HR policies and address unfair pay head-on, and I’m prepared to work tirelessly until just practices are widespread. In the meantime, the unfortunate truth is that many people in underrepresented groups will be paid unfairly. Maybe you’re a woman, maybe you’re brown or Black or queer. Here is my advice on how you can and should channel toughness despite adversity and fight for fair pay.

Position yourself for growth over time

Next, recognize when you’re consistently performing above your expected role. This is a pivotal moment that many women and underrepresented groups hit quietly, believing that if they continue to deliver, the rewards will come. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. You have to talk about it. As soon as you know you’re over-performing, be brave, and have the conversation with your manager. Bring it up again as you’re asked to take on more work, to train others, to lead or influence informally. The worst that can happen is that they say no, and then you know where you stand.

Always keep a pulse on what you’re worth in the market

One specific colleague who was the same age and had a similar background, continued to make significantly more money than I did, even when I received multiple merit-based promotions and he did not. I brought my concerns to everyone who would meet with me. Finally, when I spoke to the head of compensation, she expressed sympathy but would not commit to action. I knew then that I had to make a leap.

That experience taught me that being paid unfairly impacts your credibility as a professional and keeps you held down. I actually had a recruiter tell me that he thought I was fantastic but his hiring manager didn’t believe I was performing the role on my resume because my pay was so low. It was then I understood that I can love my coworkers but still should keep a temperature gauge out there to remind me what I’m worth.

Another important way to keep a pulse on your market value is to interview. Never stop interviewing, and approach every interview as an opportunity for negotiation skill-building. Don’t let a recruiter box you in by asking you what you make. Tell them you’re paid in line with the market and that you’re looking for a good bump in order to leave your current post. Even if you ultimately don’t expect to make a switch, these conversations boost confidence and allow you to collect data on how other companies are willing to invest in you.

In my career, I’ve learned that it’s a luxury to feel settled in a job. It’s a luxury that underrepresented workers don’t always get. Until you’ve closed your pay gap, try not to let yourself feel content. Always scan the environment for the next opportunity. Sometimes you’ll want to stay put, to just relax. Don’t give in to that feeling.

It’s terrible that fair compensation isn’t enforced for its own sake. That’s why I’m committed to doing everything I can to disrupt HR for the better. For the time being, I encourage you to keep fighting, keep pushing, and believe that you will eventually overcome unfair pay. If not for yourself, for your family, and for future generations. I’m proof that it’s possible.

Lorraine Vargas Townsend is the chief people guru at A Cloud Guru.

Originally published at https://www.fastcompany.com on December 10, 2020.

A queer, Latinx, progressive HR executive with 20+ years of experience. My mission: fight tokenism to lift up people & build anti-racist, inclusive workplaces.