Are you being paid what you’re worth? Tips for women when asking for a pay rise

Photography by Jordan Drysdale
Words by Isabelle Sacks

Is it just me, or did no one ever teach me this?

Every time I’ve been in an interview for a big-girl job, we inevitably get to that dreaded question: “What are your salary expectations?”. Almost immediately, I feel myself break out into a full sweat. 

Sometimes I throw out a random number, with zero clue as to whether I’m dreaming or totally undervaluing myself. Sometimes I manage to muster the, “What have you got budgeted for this role?” line, only to receive a number that means absolutely nothing to me. I’ve realised that my fatal mistake here is not being properly prepared. 

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I would never go into an interview without thinking about what I could do for the company, so why do I struggle so much to quantify what my skills and experience should be worth? Money might be the last bastion of taboo in my life, but if we ever hope to tear down the gender pay gap one brick a time, we need to get comfy talking about it.

To find out more about securing the bag, I spoke to the director of Blue Sky Career Consulting, Julie Knox. She’s had a 20-year career in human resources and knows a thing or two about helping people achieve their career goals.

Working out your market rate

Whether you’re thinking of asking for a raise or applying for new positions, you need to do your homework. Julie recommends starting with resources like Glassdoor, PayScale, Seek and LinkedIn to get a feel for the Australian average in your industry, and also talking to people in your network who have similar roles. From there she suggests really digging into the job descriptions of positions you’re going for.

“What you then need to think about is if you’ve been working in the industry, how have you gone above and beyond what some of these typical roles are? Where are you bringing added value to your employer? Because often we do more than what the job description says,” Julie says.

It’s time to negotiate

After you get your foot in the door of a company, going through round after round of interviews, it can feel awkward to demand a raise before you’ve even started the job. The important thing to know here is that hiring parties are prepared and often expecting you to start negotiating with them once you secure a job offer.

From there asking, “I’m really excited about this opportunity, is it possible to talk about a higher starting salary?” is a good start. Once the initial offer is made, Julie believes that asking for about 10 per cent more is a reasonable opening negotiation. “By that point, they’ve invested in you and they like you, so for them to negotiate that extra 10 per cent is probably not that big a deal. It might feel quite difficult for you to have that conversation, but it shows an employer that you know your value,” she says. 

The wonders of compound interest

Negotiating your compensation is super important – especially at the beginning of your career. Since raises are typically a percentage improvement over your existing salary, the earnings of those who negotiate soon outstrip the salaries of those who never or rarely negotiate over the course of a lifetime, making it more and more difficult to catch up. 

That’s not to say accepting a lower-paid graduate or entry-level position isn’t worth it, because you’re often being paid in experience and training as much as salary. Julie says the key here is not to stay in those roles for more than 18 months. “Once you’ve done your time and gained that experience you need to move on and move upwards into a better paying role,” she explains.

When it’s time to move on up

Julie also spoke to me about the tendency of some women to undervalue their earning potential. “Sometimes women feel guilty for earning a good wage for something that they love doing, and almost feel like they shouldn’t be getting paid for a job where it feels like a joy to be there. But we should be earning fair wages for any role,” she says. While no one is inherently entitled to career advancement, we do need to advocate for ourselves if we feel we’ve earned it. 

Julie stresses that when asking for a promotion or a raise, the most important thing to do is to go in fully prepared. “That can be having a list of achievements or projects that you’ve completed in that year or any feedback that you’ve had from colleagues, managers or clients that shows the value that you’re adding. Also, go in with a figure. It’s really important to know what you want. It’s not enough to go in and say, ‘Can I get a pay rise?’. You need to have an expectation and be prepared to negotiate with that,” she says.

What’s the worst that can happen if you ask for more?

Maybe the worst that can happen is something along the lines of you tripping in front of the whole office, spilling coffee on your boss, entering the negotiation from a weaker position, failing to secure the bag and triggering an impromptu performance review that shows you falling short of every single KPI. But a far more likely scenario is that they just say no. This could range from, “No, we can’t afford it right now,” to “No, we don’t think you’ve shown us enough to warrant a raise”.

Julie stresses that a no can be a net positive in the long run. “It’s important to know that it’s fine to ask, it does no harm, asking shows that you’re ambitious, shows that you’re passionate and that you want to progress, and these are all traits that employers are looking for,” she says.

“Whether or not you do get a pay rise, make sure as part of that meeting you are asking for another salary review within six to 12 months. Set the expectation that if you’ve got performance indicators or achievements that you’re trying to work towards and you hit those in a given period, you want to go up to the next pay level,” Julie says.

While I’m not all in on the girl boss ‘feminism’ that encourages women to take on Australia’s gender pay gap as individuals, Julie pushed me to think about how being assertive in this way helps lift other women up too, even just by making asking for what we’re worth more normalised. “On a personal level and individual level, it’s really important to back yourself and have confidence that the value that you add should be compensated.”

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For more tips on negotiating a pay rise, head here.

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