Within eight months of each other, two young college grads start work as paralegals in a small, New York City law firm. Both are graduates of top-20 colleges in the Northeast. Neither has any relevant paralegal experience.
One gets an office; the other gets a cubicle. The one with the office earns a significant amount more.
Now, for the riddle: Which paralegal is female?
If you guessed the lower-paid cubicle dweller … you’re right. The age-old pay gap between men and women is, depressingly, as strong an institution as ever. In fact, The Washington Post recently called the pay gap “entrenched,” noting that white men currently make $2.09 more per hour than white women. And in 600 occupations surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men earn more than women in all but seven.
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We tried to figure out when the pay gap actually begins: Is it at that first job? When women have children? Or is it at each step of the career ladder, when, as many have argued, women don’t ask for raises as often as men?
We have an interview to prove that all too often, it may be the simplest—and saddest—reason of all: sexism.
Read on for a Q&A with Anthony,* the young male paralegal from the riddle above, to find out why he’s coming out on top, and feels guilty about it.
How long have you been working at the law firm?
I’ve been there a little over a year—about 13 months. Caitlin*, the only other paralegal at the firm, started working there about eight months earlier than I did. She graduated in 2010 from Wesleyan, while I graduated a year later from Yale. Neither of us studied something particularly law-related. I was a Latin American Studies major.
Tell me a little bit about the seating arrangement.
All the lawyers and I have offices (mine’s obviously the smallest). Caitlin and the secretaries are in the cubicles. She’s the only person who's not a secretary who's in a cubicle. All of the secretaries are female, and there are no female lawyers in our office.
In terms of a legitimate work-related reason for my having the office and not her, I guess I do keep a lot of files? But the more probable reason is that the guy I replaced had the office, and when they hired me, they just put me in the office. They might not have moved her to the office and given me the cubicle because when the receptionist leaves at 5 p.m., Caitlin fills in as the relief receptionist. She goes up to the front desk and handles that.
When I got here, they mentioned training me to do that—but they never did.
How do you know that you’re making more money?
A few months in, Caitlin basically asked me outright at the end of the day when most people were gone. She knew that my predecessor (also a guy) had been making more than she was. I asked her the same question, and the number she told me was 15% lower than what I make.
Do you think your work is 15% more valuable to the firm?
I couldn’t say, honestly, since we do very different things, but I do work slightly longer hours—maybe nine hours compared to her eight hours. She definitely does more of the day-to-day copying and mailing, which is less thought-intensive, but no, I couldn’t definitively say that my work is 15% more valuable than hers.
Many people speculate that the pay gap comes about because men negotiate more. Did you negotiate your starting salary?
No, I did not—I was just so excited that someone actually wanted to hire me. But I also know (because I asked) that she didn’t negotiate hers, either.
I know for a fact that Caitlin hasn’t asked for a raise since learning that I make more than she does. The headhunter who hired me works in our office, and I went to ask her for advice, because I wanted to ask for a raise. She said I absolutely should go ahead and ask, and then told me that she wished Caitlin would ask, too, because she feels strongly that women need to ask for more money.
I’m going to ask for a 15% increase. While that seems like a lot, I’ve done the research and I’m definitely making less than the going rate for a paralegal.
What are your feelings about the differences between you and Caitlin?
I definitely feel a little bit guilty. I can't really speak to the partners' rationale, but I do think it's unfair that I have an office and she doesn't, and I'm automatically making more money even though I've been here for much less time.
I discussed the situation with one of the secretaries, and she tried to justify the gap between me and Caitlin, saying that I did a lot more at the firm and had more responsibility. That was news to me, so to speak ... I don't know if the secretary was just trying to be nice.
Caitlin and I have worked together for a fair amount of time now, so we have a definite rapport. I've encouraged her to ask for a raise before--maybe she has and I don't know about it, but I seriously doubt it.
While sexism certainly seems as if it may be afoot in this situation, the story also drives home a more fixable point, should you find yourself in a similar position: Ask for more money! While solving the greater issue of sexism in your office certainly requires more than one person's efforts, you can start to better your own situation by asking for a raise every year or every time your job significantly changes.
Also: Ask for more responsibility that will give you greater visibility in the firm. Often a raise will come after you've already proven you're working beyond your job description.
If you know you’re getting paid less for the same or similar work as a co-worker, and you deserve more, you absolutely need to ask for a raise.
*Names have been changed.
*Editor's note: This article has been slightly amended to clarify the author's intentions. While LearnVest certainly believes you should always negotiate your salary when you start a new job, and studies have shown that many women do not, we know that sexism is still a rampant issue in many workplaces, which is why we chose to publish this story.