It's better to be paid fairly than to be liked. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
It's better to be paid fairly than to be liked. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama has taken an important step to end pay inequality between the sexes. An executive order he signed this week prohibits federal contractors, who employ more than 20 percent of the country's workers, from retaliating against employees who share salary information.

The next steps are up to women. They will have to ask their male co-workers what they make. And if women find they're being shorted, they will have to demand raises.

It worked for me. Years ago, in a conversation with a male colleague at Time magazine whose career mirrored mine, I discovered a disconcerting gap between our salaries. When I pointed this out while asking my boss for a raise for the first time, he said bluntly, "We've always paid women less," before hiking my pay to match my male colleague's.

As stunned as I was by his remark, I was more astonished when the magazine's second in command acknowledged that he knew I was "egregiously" underpaid. This editor was my guru at the magazine. I had expected him to look out for me.

My naivete makes me laugh now. His priority as the magazine's personnel chief wasn't to look out for me; it was to make his budget. I hadn't complained about my pay, so my bosses had no reason to boost it beyond the small increases almost everyone got yearly.

As a rule, men are savvier about this and ask for raises more often than women. A 2012 study supposedly debunked this notion. However, it was conducted among business school graduates, a group likely to understand the importance of demanding raises.

That study and others have shown that even when women ask for higher pay, they don't get as much as men do. Or if they do, they pay a price in the workplace for being seen as overly aggressive.

This is a ridiculous doublestandard, of course, but it can't be wished away. In a study last year, academics Hannah Riley Bowles and Linda Babock identified negotiation tactics that mitigate the backfire risk for women. They include mentioning one's discomfort with asking for a raise, casting one's negotiating skills as good for the company and asking the boss what she or he thinks about a raise.

Such techniques may be useful to have in one's back pocket, but, thanks to Obama's order, they may not be necessary in many cases. I'd never heard such advice when I asked for my raise more than 20 years ago, and if I had I would have resisted it. In any event, I only had to present my boss with the fact that I knew what he knew -- that I was underpaid -- to get the raise I deserved.

Was I stigmatized for asking? Perhaps a little. I'd been told a few years earlier that the editors appreciated me for being what one called "the okey-dokey kid." I knew when I asked for the raise that no one would ever call me that again. But no one should be content to be the okey-dokey kid if their livelihood is at stake.

To contact the author of this post: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.