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Compensation Conversation: Janice

As a mom working at an intense ad agency for the last 12 years, my relationship with my salary has been complicated. I want to make more, but I also want to be around for my children rather than pulling late hours or traveling constantly to see clients. I have three kids, ages 9, 7 and nearly 2, and I value my time with them. In fact, when I returned from my first two maternity leaves, I didn’t negotiate for a pay increase, because I didn’t want to invite scrutiny regarding my hours. I rationalized that I’d rather make less than rock my life-balance. I wanted to do good work, leave at a reasonable hour, and fly under the radar.

But eventually I discovered that I was significantly underpaid. My salary has only increased $40k since I started at the company, the result of two promotions. I’m 39, with more than 15 years of agency experience, and I’m making $125k as a strategy director. The market rate is much more, and not long ago, my boss let it slip that one of my male colleagues at the same level was making $240k. Over 100k more! I laughed out loud when I heard. I knew I was getting screwed but not to this scale! My bosses have come and gone--I’ve had five in the last 10 years--and my paycheck has stayed stuck.

Finally, when my last maternity leave was winding down, I realized, if I was going to return to work with three kids at home, I needed to make enough to pay our nanny. I with Wager to learn some negotiation techniques, and after some preparation, I told my boss flat out, I can only return if you give me a raise. This was at the end of the year, and my boss told me to talk to him in January. In the meantime, he gave me a piece of new business to work on and said if it was a success, I could potentially get a salary bump. I followed up when planned, and he told me there was no budget for an increase and took me off that piece of business.

When I was denied that increase, I did two things: I told my boss I wanted to work from home one day a week, and he agreed. I also tried--half-heartedly--to get another job. But I realized I didn’t want to throw myself into an equivalent role at another company just for the salary increase.

So, I’ve stayed in my current role and been grateful for my slightly modified schedule. Recently, we won another new piece of business, and my new boss requested I work on it with her and told me that it will help fund an eventual raise for me. I’m doing my best work for it, of course, but I’m not confident that I’ll be compensated. It’s a move in the right direction though, and in the meantime, I’m treasuring my Friday visits to the playground. Still, if I were granted a do-over of the last decade, I would have approached two things differently.

When I was given a promotion and a raise years ago, I should have pushed back on the first offer. With experience, you learn you have every right to push back. I could have said, ‘No I’m worth $150k instead of $120k’ but I was afraid my bosses would retract the offer. I didn’t know what my peers were making. Now I do.

I wish I’d forgotten about “paying my dues” and instead focused on getting paid well! When you start in advertising, you think the industry doesn’t pay that much. But there’s money out there, and you need to negotiate smartly to get it. You don’t have to pay your dues, working for less than the market rate in the hopes you’ll be recognized one day. It’s vital to get your salary up before you have a family to support.

Still, I’m glad I made the case for flexible Fridays. This time with my kids has been so valuable to me while I figure out my next move.

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