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Don't get angry, get equal pay

“Today’s session is not about getting angry, but getting even–getting even pay,” said moderator Tara Joseph, executive producer at Thomson Reuters, at a panel on June 26 organised by The Women’s Foundation and the French Chamber of Commerce on the gender gap in pay.

Joseph set the tone for an informative, no-holds-barred discussion by three panellists on why women in Hong Kong earn an average of 20 per cent less than men, and how women can act to rectify that pay deficit.

The statistics make for puzzling reading. While the majority of women in Hong Kong – about 55 per cent – have third-level tertiary education, only 44 per cent of them make it to middle-management positions, and just 8 to 9 per cent progress to board level.

Tracing those statistics back to the entry-level positions helps to clarify how women fall behind in the pay rankings as they climb the corporate ladder. For example, in the financial services sector, the pillar of Hong Kong’s economy, men and women usually start at the same pay as entry-level analysts.

“But very soon, you’ll see the men outpacing the women,” said Farzana Aslam, director at Kintillo Employment Consultants and a member of the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong.

Speaking from the experience of a career spanning more than 30 years in investment banking, hedge funds and asset management, Elspeth Renshaw, a partner at Talent 2 International who specialises in senior banking and financial services positions, says that the pay differential is not due to some secret agreement among headhunters or human resources departments to pay women less.

“Nobody has ever said to me, ‘I want you to pay this person differently because she’s female’,” she said.

A woman being interviewed for a senior position may well be offered a substantial increase on her current pay to lure her to the new company, but the increase is usually offered on a compensation level that is already significantly below that of her male counterparts, thus entrenching the pay differential.

Resetting the balance will not happen automatically. Women need to fight to do it, and that means women need to learn to become stronger negotiators. That is not easy – women, unlike men, often see pay as a reflection of their personal worth and can become emotional if pay negotiations don’t go their way. In particular, in situations where the outcome is unclear or ambiguous, such as during a pay negotiation, women tend to do badly while men appear to relish the challenge, Renshaw says.

“They’re actually quite turned-on by salary negotiation, and we’re terrified of it,” she said.

The key tools for successful negotiation are research, confidence and practice, the panellists agreed.

Confidence in negotiating stems from believing that you are good enough to do the job, another area where men and women tend to differ.

Men, says Pattie Walsh, a partner at DLA Piper and head of the Asia-Pacific Employment, Pensions and Benefits practice, tend not to worry about their possible inadequacies and instead focus on the positive aspects of their abilities.

“Confidence that you’re worthy of the job is the key,” says Walsh.

That needs to come across in body language as well as words. Focus on being positive about yourself and the discussion, but not aggressive.

“Maintain strong eye contact and stick with the facts,” advises Renshaw.

Panellists also advised doing your homework prior to asking for a pay rise. Preparation should start with research. Find out what your peers in the company are being paid when you start a new job. Gather as many facts about pay as you can, both from the company and the industry, and practise holding the pay-negotiation conversation.

“Men arrive over-prepared, women arrive under-prepared. It’s that simple,” said Renshaw. “Data will win; emotions just won’t. This is a business discussion and sentiment has got nothing to do with it.”

Be honest with yourself about what skills and strengths you bring to the table so that you are able to articulate your worth when the time comes. Also, keep a close eye on the competition – get to know your male counterparts and look at what they’re doing, their achievements, and why they are seen as effective employees.

If there is a historical pay difference that needs to be rectified, make that clear during initial pay talks. Before you accept a position, be firm that you want to be paid at the same level as others – male or female – who are doing the same job. “Say, ‘This is what I was paid for my former job, but that’s not my starting point for negotiation,’” says Aslam.

Building up confidence includes developing and maintaining a strong professional image. Whether or not you are aware of it, work colleagues and superiors all have views on your work and your abilities. Honing these views to your advantage helps you build up a network of supporters and advocates. That support helps you become a valued team member and can assist in finding networking and mentoring opportunities.

“Be really strategic,” advises Aslam.

That may mean keeping a log of your goals and your progress towards meeting them. It also means taking the credit for your ideas and achievements, and informing your manager regularly about the progress you’re making.

The law can provide some recourse for those who cannot make headway with pay negotiations, but it’s a path to be chosen only after considering the costs and potential consequences with great care.

“This isn’t an exact science – equal pay is difficult to determine,” cautions Walsh, adding that many different aspects of a job play a part in setting the pay, and that makes it more difficult in many cases to find “apples to apples” comparisons for performance.

“There’s always going to be something that, on the face of it, could justify a differential in pay, in a court of law,” agrees Aslam.

If you do go ahead with litigation, be aware of the costs, both materially and personally.

“Be realistic about whether you’re up for it, and how it will affect your career in that organisation,” advises Walsh.