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Can I Be a Woman in Tech and Still Be Paid What I Deserve?

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This is the latest installment of our “Ask Wealthsimple” series. Here, our career guru, Nora Jenkins Townson, gives some career-growing advice .

One thing we know about women in the workplace is that we're underpaid. When my potential employer asks me about my current salary, can I lie and say I make more than I do? How else can you break the cycle?

Most good companies are looking to understand what you’re expecting. They’re not just after the lowest salary they can get you for. So when you’re interviewing for a new job and they ask about salary, go in and confidently state the salary that you’re expecting. For example, let’s say you make $50,000 now and one of the reasons you’re leaving is that you want to make more—and you know that you’re worth more. When you’re asked about salary say, “I expect $70,000.”

After I got my first job, I realized I was at a company where, as a woman, I wasn’t likely to rise. If I’m applying for a new job, what questions should I ask to make sure the company is really going to support me in the long term?

It's not fair to expect perfection, but it is fair to expect commitment. When I first met my would-be manager for this job (Wealthsimple CEO Mike Katchen), he brought this up himself. He wanted to know how to help Wealthsimple become a more diverse team. And he didn't sugarcoat it— he was clear about the challenges the team was facing, and continues to face, I should add. But the fact that growing women's careers was a priority made me want to join the team. We're still working on this together (and have a long way to go), but our commitment is strong and I believe it shows.

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So, if you’re interviewing with your would-be manager, I’d ask them straight off about their, and the company’s, overall commitment to inclusivity and supporting women.Wealthsimple, for instance, has a women’s professional circle that meets monthly for roundtable discussions, to listen to speakers, and to do some development activities. I'd also ask how they’ve measured success in that realm. It's one thing to say it's a priority, it's another if it's something that's actually measured.

And what about in the actual interview process?

Well, one criticism of typical engineering interviews, for instance, is that there can be kind of a get-up-and-prove-it vibe. You get up at a whiteboard, three people are looking on, and you’re just up there sweating.

That’s my actual nightmare: A bunch of guys who probably already doubt my abilities staring me down while I try to think.

Yeah, and the point of an interview, in my opinion, is to see if you'd work well with someone. The best way to do that is to simulate both the work and the environment the candidate would actually be in. So the candidate would sit with a member of our team and look at a coding problem together, as a pair. It’s called pair programming, and that’s what we’ve changed the interview to focus on. If you need to test how they perform under pressure, just ask them for examples. But really the best thing you can do is include women in the interview process. If you absolutely can’t do that, for whatever reason, there are other ways that candidates can meet women at your company. For example, Wealthsimple provides daily catered lunches, and we have interviewing candidates stay and have lunch with us so they can get an idea of our culture.

Do you also include women in the interview process when you’re interviewing men?

Yes. We’ve rooted out some bad apples because we’ve had interviews where there's been a man and a woman interviewing a candidate, and the man and the woman were both equally qualified—sometimes the woman more so—and the candidate would only address the man in the room.

Ah yes, I’m very familiar with that phenomenon. If I have a situation like that, where a colleague regularly turns to a male coworker with questions about a project that

If you are comfortable confronting that person, great. If not, it's very easy to ask HR to keep an eye on a small situation without starting a full-on investigation. It's very easy for me to have a quick word with someone or his manager to course-correct.

What are some red flags that show that a company isn’t going to respond to complaints like that, or that the company isn’t committed to promoting women?

Find out about the careers of other women who work there. You can do some sleuthing on LinkedIn and see if women at the company have been promoted or are in leadership roles. I’d also look for clues in the benefits provided. That's where companies can make a statement about who they’re looking to attract and retain.

What benefits in particular should I look for?

Maternity and paternity leave, for example. We actually just overhauled our benefits with this in mind. We launched a really generous parental-leave policy—six months of your parental leave will be covered at 100 percent.

For women who have been with their companies for a long time, what’s a good strategy for learning your coworkers’ salaries? I think being less opaque about salaries is a really good thing, but it’s so hard to bring up, even among friends.

You can check out a resource like Glassdoor — though the salaries there aren't always accurate. Otherwise it’s usually just about talking to people you’re close with. You can also talk to HR—or People Operations or whatever your company calls it—and ask what the pay range is for different levels of your role. That’s totally kosher. Say you’re an engineer: There may be junior, intermediate, and senior types of roles, and they may be able to be transparent with you about salaries for those. If you’re an engineer at a junior level, they may be able to share what it takes to get to the next level.

If I do learn that I’m underpaid, but I don’t know what other factors went into that decision, what do I do with that information? Do I bring it up if I’m asking for a raise?

I would also recommend, first, doing some research. Ask people across different companies—not just at yours. You can access salary databases that are crowd-sourced. PayScale, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor all have tools for that. The more knowledge you have, the more power you have there. When I’ve negotiated for myself in the past, I’ve looked for every bit of support and research out there, and I’ve come to the table with that. I think you’d be less successful coming in with “I make less than so-and-so.” Maybe they have a more advanced degree than you, or they have a couple more years of experience. It’s best to have as much ammunition, if you will, as possible. And don’t expect an answer there and then: Your manager will have to go through a process andadvocate for you in order to make it happen. And if you do hear no, take that opportunity to have a real conversation with them about what you’re missing. Work with your manager and make a specific list of things to work on. If they’re not willing to do that, and you’re ambitious, then move on—they’re not intending to grow you.

I’ve read that job postings and career sites at tech companies can alienate women. For me, if one job seems more lady-friendly than another—even if I can’t put my finger on why—then that’s the one I’ll apply to. What tips do you have for a company hoping to remodel its site to attract more women?

As a company, I really think you need to overcommunicate your culture. Make sure you have photos depicting a diverse team and environment. Make sure you’re specific about the perks and benefits that support a diverse team. If you offer parental leave, state how much. In many states and provinces, there are regulations that encourage you to include a diversity or accommodation statement, but you should go further and flat out declare your interest in hiring and growing a diverse team, both on your main page and in every job posting. There’s subtler stuff, too. Textio, for instance, is a great tool that tells you whether your job-posting language is leaning masculine or feminine. It might not seem like a big deal, but job candidates pick up on this stuff. Textio uses machine learning to study the success of job postings, so you can just copy and paste your post, and it will analyze it to predict who the language is most likely to attract.

What’s an example of a masculine versus a feminine word?

Take “competitive” versus “collaborative.” These are small things. But they matter.


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