Taboo No More: Breaking the Silence About Money

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It’s time to shine a light on money and to keep the conversation open and honest explains Bonnie Low Kramen

Next to workplace bullying, the subject of money is one of the hot button subjects for assistants all over the world. How I know is when I ask how high the stress level is on a scale of 1-10, they shout back, “10! 12!” Rarely do I hear a number lower than 7.

First, some facts based on my experience and research.

  • Assistants are 95-98% female.
  • Most assistants are not making the money they deserve to be earning.
  • Many are severely underpaid.
  • Most want to change the situation but don’t know how and feel frightened and intimidated by the whole process.

Read on if you are an assistant who wants to improve your compensation.

Note: Given the dominance of women in the profession, I will be using the pronoun “she.” What I am sharing can most definitely be utilized by men and I warmly welcome them to do so. I am very happy to note that I see an increase in the numbers of men in my workshops and audiences. That is great news for many reasons, including the fact that a more diverse workforce is a stronger and more productive one. And…the presence of more men will drive salaries higher.

Money is one of those historically forbidden and taboo topics that has been shrouded in secrecy and silence. To that I say, no more. The secrecy around these issues are a contributing factor to the current economic state for women.

In 2019, women in the USA are making 79 cents for every dollar a man makes – and the gap is even bigger for women of color. As a result, I hear from women who feel stuck and paralyzed by living paycheck to paycheck. They have trouble making ends meet and putting food on the table. They are preoccupied with worry and fear. These facts should concern every CEO, executive, and HR professional reading this because that worry is taking up valuable real estate in brain power.

In general, women are loath to complain, especially to leaders. Women are reluctant to make any waves if they fear their jobs could be on the line. Therefore, the silence. Yet, in our heads we know the saying, you don’t get if you don’t ask. That is absolutely true for money.

The tug of war between these two ideas is real. Women – in general – aren’t asking. Assistants hope that their hard work will be noticed and be rewarded. It’s not happening like that. In the meantime, assistants are servant leaders who are the right arms to their executives, the backbone of the company and the face of the company culture. On top of all that, they are taking work home and doing it at night and on the weekends – and not telling anyone.

Only 7% of women will negotiate salary compared with 57% of men. So, what exactly are we afraid of? What stops us from asking for what we deserve?

  1. Afraid of rejection and being told “no.”
  2. We fear not being liked by our managers.
  3. We are afraid that our co-workers will judge us harshly.
  4. Impostor Syndrome. We feel we don’t deserve it.
  5. Afraid of losing our jobs if we ask.
  6. Fear of success.

I speak with executives all over the world and they essentially say, “Bonnie, if I don’t hear there is a problem, I think there is none.” Important to know, yes?

This set of circumstances is complicated by the fact that assistants report that they absolutely “love” their jobs and are passionately committed to them. Recent data shows that the most passionate people in the workplace are the easiest to take for granted and to take unfair advantage of. The real-life results of this are women who are burned out and suffering from record levels of stress.

Attention World’s Workplace! – We have a problem. A big one.

If your experience mirrors some or all of what I have written, here is what you can do.

1. Set your intention.

Look at the calendar and decide that today is a new day to make a change.

2. Find out how much your role, given your experience, responsibilities, skills and education/certifications, is worth in your geographic market.

It is impossible to negotiate if you don’t know the number. Visit a local recruiter and check out Glassdoor.com, Indeed.com, and LinkedIn for lots of examples of compensation ranges.

3. Know that it is very expensive to replace staff.

Chances are very good that your employers do not want to live without you and do not want to replace you. Seriously, I have numerous stories of assistants who finally quit their jobs only to learn that they were replaced with 2 or even 3 people.

4. Create a written document which serves as your professional summary.

Doing this communicates the seriousness with which you are treating your career. A friendly and non-threatening cover letter accompanies the document which contains:

  • Current CV
  • Job Description you were hired in at and your current job description (they often look very different)
  • Quantifiable achievements of the last year
  • List of projects coming up in the next 6-12 months
  • 3-5 letters from people telling you how you helped them
  • Salary history
  • Salary proposal based on your research. Name a number that is 5% higher than you know is fair. Include other things you want including; vacation time, approval to work at home one or more days each week, and an annual training budget ($3-5K average) are just a few examples

This document does the talking for you before you ever have to say the words out loud to your executive.

My students have experienced tremendous success with using this strategy since most assistants are champion researchers. Executives respect and appreciate that their assistants are taking charge of their careers and handling themselves as the leader of their own livelihood. Many assistants report that their executives respond that they “had no idea” how underpaid they are and are eager to correct the problem. The assistants end up wishing that they had acted much sooner.

When we break the silence to finally talk about realistic ways to approach negotiation, the stress levels automatically come down. Strategies, such as creating a written proposal outlining your current situation and justifying the changes using data and metrics, work. The documents do the talking for you before you ever have to have the verbal conversation which many women are loath to have.

Here’s a true story. One of my students has a strong relationship with her executive who is the owner of the company. She did her research and found out what her salary should be in her geographic market given her responsibilities and experience. She created a document sharing the data and outlining her value to the company. When her executive read the document, he was mortified and embarrassed. He said he had no idea how grossly underpaid she was. The executive set the wheels in motion to adjust her compensation and thanked her for bringing it to his attention. This decision not only resulted in a $20K increase but a plan for some retroactive compensation and future increases.

The assistant’s life is now changed for the better. The silence is broken. She is now determined to help others make the money they deserve.

If we truly want to turn this ship around, we must find mentors and training to teach women how to negotiate and to advocate for themselves with confidence. This is a new skill for many women and step number one is to break the silence around the issues of money. It’s time to shine a light on money and to keep the conversation open and honest between leaders, HR, and staff until the wage gap is closed.

I shall end with a thought to ponder. Once you are sure of what you should be earning in your geographic market, you will be able to earn as much as you can say out loud with a straight face.

Think about it.

Share.

About Author

Bonnie Low-Kramen

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the Founder of Ultimate Assistant and is one of the most respected leaders in the administrative profession. The bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant, she is known for her passionate commitment to being a catalyst for positive change in the global workplace. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis and now travels the world teaching and speaking. Bonnie co-hosts the monthly “Be the Ultimate Assistant Podcast” with Vickie Sokol Evans, available on iTunes. For more information: www.bonnielowkramen.com. Bonnie will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE in London 27-28 March, 2020. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

3 Comments

  1. What happens if you follow this to the T but your boss and the HR manager say ‘no, you’re part of a team and We can’t single you out for a pay rise’ despite not having had a pay increase in over 10 years and the fact that none of the team do what I do?

    • Bonnie Low-Kramen

      Hi Sarah, No increase in 10 years? Shame on your leaders. That is nothing short of disrespectful and taking advantage. I suggest respectfully and professionally asking for a “salary evaluation” and if you are told “no,” I would say it is time to leverage your network and the strong job market to look elsewhere.

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