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What are women asking for when they ask for equal pay?

Defining the words we use to describe the wage gap

By Alex Laughlin

I was talking with a friend recently about the work we’re doing with the Pay Up community.

“We’re having a lot of conversations about the gender wage gap, as well as things like impostor syndrome,” I said, beginning to rattle off a list of workplace-identity-politics buzz words like “diversity,” “glass ceiling,” and “equal pay for equal work.”

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My friend stopped me at impostor syndrome. Her face was blank — she’d never heard of it. In that moment, I was tasked with defining the term, which, weirdly, is a thing I’d never had to do before.

Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you tricked everyone around you to get to where you are. When you’re pretty sure everyone is looking at you thinking, “How did she get here?” When you feel like your state of employment is the result of a clerical error in an HR department, rather than your own hard work, persistence, and talent. That’s impostor syndrome. And tons of people suffer from it — even Natalie Portman and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

But I didn’t articulate any of that.

Awkwardly, I strung together a few words, mostly nonsense, sprinkling in “Sheryl Sandberg” and “women in the workplace” wherever it seemed appropriate.

The experience forced me to consider something that seems basic to those of us having these conversations on a regular basis: we throw around these words like everyone knows what they mean, but do they? And if we’re not stopping to define them, are we sure we’re all talking about the same things when we say them?

So I turned to the Pay Up community and asked them about a few of the words we’ve been using in our discussions — “diversity,” “equal pay” and “impostor syndrome” — to see what they mean when they use those terms, and what they’re actually asking for.

Equal pay

Everyone in the group agreed that when they talk about equal pay, they mean that when a woman and a man do the same work, they should be compensated equally — something that is still not always the case (even if the oft-repeated statistic that women make 79 cents to every dollar that men make lacks some nuance).

But there were some different ideas on the specifics of what that entails. For our different members, equal pay meant:

Getting the same benefit of the doubt: “Not getting a lower initial offer than a man interviewing for the same job, who has the same background I do. Hiring not just men, but women on potential, vs. exact experience match.”

Pay decoupled from negotiation skills: “No one should be punished for not having strong negotiation skills, and no one should unduly profit from being a strong negotiator, particularly because women face backlash when they use the same negotiation tactics as men,” one member said.

Not making assumptions about home/family life: “Typically it’s assumed that women who are mothers will prioritize their child(ren) over work, but men who are fathers won’t. This works the other way, as well. Personally I would love to see equal (and generous!) paid leave offered to parents regardless of who is the ‘primary’ caregiver.”


Diversity — of race, gender, sexuality or even age — is a thing that many employees lobby for in their workplaces, both in hiring and in leadership.

The idea of implementing gender or race-based quotas for leadership in companies is an oft-discussed solution. Organizations like the 30% Club advocate for companies to set minimum quotas of 30 percent for female representation in corporate leadership. Proponents of the quota strategy say it forces companies to boost their diversity numbers, though some opponents worry it contributes to feelings of tokenism.

Many of our members indicated that when they ask for diversity, however, they’re talking about a cultural change as much as a numbers one. They suggested that what they want is for leaders to:

See the imbalances: “I think it starts with asking a question: ‘Have you ever noticed that our company is really white/straight/male/etc.’ Because if you are talking to somebody in the majority, they often honestly DON’T notice until you point it out.”

Understand that diverse hiring makes business sense: “I know of a local design firm that was all white male. They lost potential clients because of that lack of diversity. Suddenly, they actively sought non-white non-male candidates. Magic.”

Integrate diversity initiatives: “In my opinion, the chief diversity officer is the CEO. If the CEO says ‘we need to cast a wider net and I want to see X numbers by Y date,’ it will happen.”

Impostor syndrome

So back to where we started and impostor syndrome. Was my definition a universal one?

“I think impostor syndrome should be renamed ‘lack of support syndrome,’” one member said. “Because that’s what it is.”

“Impostor syndrome is a byproduct of the patriarchy,” another responded. “The one that makes a lot of mediocre men think they’re phenomenal and a lot of phenomenal women think they’re mediocre.”

Other members disagreed and pointed out that while women experience impostor syndrome at high rates, everyone is vulnerable to it — even men.

“Anyone can experience it regardless of the strength of their support network or how well-regarded and successful they are,” another member said.

At their core, each of these concepts feel straightforward — women should be paid the same as men, companies should have a workforce that reflects the population, and everyone feels like they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes. But when it comes to the specifics, people’s vast variety of experiences lead them to some equally varied ideas about solutions.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt us to step back a little more often and make sure that when we’re demanding fixes to one — or all — of these conditions in a workplace, we’re taking the time to spell out what we actually mean by these terms.

What do the terms “equal pay,” “diversity,” and “impostor syndrome” mean to you? Share with us in the comments below.

Pay Up is a private, Slack-based community dedicated to fostering conversations about the gender wage gap. It was formerly managed by the Washington Post.

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