Not For Sale

Not for Sale
Image: Brigitte Little

When is the last time you got a raise? Does your current compensation match your responsibilities? Is your salary in line with industry standards? Are you having trouble setting prices for your business and sticking to them? Are you a stay-at-home mom or housewife without a bank account in your own name?

I’m fomenting a revolution of sorts. April has been dubbed Financial Literacy Month, which got me thinking about, well, money. So much has been written about the wage gap between women and men, and the research proves that women tend to put themselves on sale. Please don’t take offense at that statement. Writing this essay is a sort of therapy for me, because you see, throughout my working life I’ve put myself on sale. Let me explain.

Years ago, when I lived at home, I commuted over an hour every day from Easton, PA to Edison, NJ (Metro Park) on highways 287 and 78 to and from work. Anyone who lives in Jersey can tell you the hell it is to drive those roads during rush hour. One day when I got home, my mom asked me to go across town to get her food from Wendy’s. She’d asked my brother and he’d said no. To put this request in perspective, my mom had a car and could drive, she just didn’t feel like going out. My brother, who worked part-time (no commute), didn’t feel like going out. I sure didn’t feel like turning around and going back out, but I did. I couldn’t say no. I wanted to, but I felt guilty because it was my mom. So, what does this story have to do with money? A lot.

You see, over 30 years later, I now realize I’ve been stuck in a “proving” mentality. As women we are conditioned to prove that we’re worthy of love, trust, praise and yes, money. Men believe they deserve it. My mother’s love and affection were not tied to my brother’s response. In his mind there was no connection. However, I proved my love for my mom by what I did; the same way she proved her love for our family by her sacrifices.

Similarly, in the workplace, we work hard to prove our competency. I became acquainted with the theory of putting myself on sale from reading Suze Orman’s book, Women & Money. In it she tells the story of a friend working for a major corporation. This friend was approached by a competitor who offered her nearly double the salary for essentially the same job she was doing for her longtime employer. She became angry when she realized her employer had been taking advantage of her for years, but she “couldn’t imagine this employer she respected and did good work for would not reward her to the extent she was able. She believed her when she talked about belt tightening.” Like so many women, Suze’s friend believed that if she proved her competency, she would be fairly compensated for her work. “Men,” Suze says, “like to negotiate; men want to negotiate. Rustle some corporate feathers? Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Now, I do believe that women negotiate. If you’re a mom, you probably do it every day – you get your toddler to put their shoes on, your teenager to take the garbage out, your husband to (fill in the blank). I think where we fail, is that we attach feelings to our requests.

In her essay, The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, Dr. Deborah Tannen, comments on how as girls we learn to use language. She states, “From childhood, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers…” With what result? “Girls learn to talk in ways that balance their own needs with those of others – to save face for one another in the broadest sense of the term.” Just like the incident with my mom and brother, it’s not cut and dry with us.

This reminds me of a temp job I took last year for a few weeks. I should have listened to my gut after speaking to the employer on the phone. She made a point of telling me she needed someone who could put out fires on a daily basis. Ok. She also told me she needed someone to create stability to keep the fires from happening. Alright, I’m the woman for the job. So, I put on my best “miss fix-it hat” and rushed in to establish order. What I found was more than disorder; I found a woman who daily sacrificed her self-worth, talent, peace of mind, health and time with her family on the altar of Proof. She ran a department on which the whole operation depended. If she failed, the government could shut them down. Her little department of One. I’m not joking. Yet, she accepted this kamikaze mission because she’d been told the company was under a hiring freeze. They would allow her to bring in a temp – yours truly – but that was all.

I’ll never forget the day she came back from a meeting in tears. The heads of other well-staffed departments were allowed to hire new people; she was not. Why? Because she’d put herself on sale. Now, I don’t know how much she made, and in this case it wasn’t just about the money. The problem was, she’d shown that the department could run successfully with one person, so her boss didn’t see the need to make any changes. What did he care that she had an hour commute and arrived at the office at 5 a.m. and didn’t leave until around 7 p.m. everyday? Did he know? Had she ever told him?

When I asked her, she responded, “He knows I put in long hours.” Now, that was the understatement of the year. “What about the work you do on the weekends to make up for traveling to the different locations?” All the question received was a tearful nod.

After talking with her for a while, I learned the underlying reason for her behavior – she didn’t think her boss liked her and she didn’t want to appear incompetent. In her essay, Dr. Deborah Tannen states, “Whatever the motivation, women are less likely than men to have learned to blow their own horn. And they are more likely than men to believe that if they do so, they won’t be liked.” So, in this woman’s mind, asking for the staff she needed to run this crucial department effectively and efficiently, meant she couldn’t perform her role as department head.

As frustrated as I felt, I couldn’t help but see myself in her. For years, I struggled along as my living expenses went up and my job responsibilities went up, but my pay didn’t. Even when I got up the nerve to ask for a raise, I settled for less than I’d asked for. My sale tag had been on for so long, I didn’t notice it anymore. Yes, I continually toyed with the idea of looking for another job, but what if? What if the new job penalized me for being a single mom? What if they wouldn’t give me the time I needed for my daughter? What if, became my personal mantra. So, I stayed on the sale rack and suffered in silence.

However, it’s not just women in the workplace who put themselves on sale. Women who work inside the home can suffer the same fate. I’m reminded of a story from Judge Judy’s book, “Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever.” A woman she knew found out her husband was having an affair and threw him out of the house. A few days later, when she went to the grocery store, her credit card had been canceled. On advice of his lawyer, the husband had shut off all access to the money. She had nothing. She had to give in and let him come back home. I’ve read this portion of the book numerous times and that story still makes my blood boil. Even though my dad was the primary breadwinner and my mom stayed at home, my mom started a sewing business to have money of her own. She drilled into my head to always have my own money. I’ll never forget her words, “I don’t care who you marry or what they have, always, always, have a bank account in your maiden name; because you will always be Brigitte Little.” Because I listened to her advice, I’ve been able to support myself and my daughter as a single mom.

It’s been a scary move, but I’ve stepped off the sale rack. I’m still struggling to remove my clearance tag. I hide it, but every once in a while, it pops out. Setting my prices and sticking to them has been the hardest part of being a business owner. I know the value of my talents and years of experience, yet, I continue to wrestle with the fear of getting paid what I deserve. I see the same problem plaguing the women members in my social media groups. They are constantly asking about how much to charge for their products or services. When someone tells them they’re charging too much, they start to doubt if their product or service is worth it. We need to erase that doubt. But, how do we permanently remove our sale tag? What will help us conquer our fears and master the art of negotiation? Come back in May for the follow up article, “I Got The Power!”

In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with these powerful words from page 57 of Women & Money:

“You are to set your value, communicate that value to the outside world, and then not settle for less…You must understand that valuing yourself is well within your control. Do not let others dictate your worth. You are never to put yourself on sale again.”

Women & Money, Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny, Suze Orman
The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, Dr. Deborah Tannen
Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever, Judge Judy Sheindlin

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