Pay Nightmares - balancenow

Click here to open menu Get in touch

Pay Nightmares

View more news

  • 11 October
  • by Susan Jansen
  • Reward

In this month’s Balance Now update, Susan shares her story on pay equity

A lot has already been said about the persistent gender pay gap in Australia.  So instead of rattling off facts and statistics, I’m going to share my own (slightly mortifying) story of how and why it happens.

Some brief context first. I grew up in a family that didn’t put excessive value on material things.  It was Canberra in the 1980s.  Everyone was a dag. My father would make jokes about us needing Nike’s swoosh of approval, ask why my cabbage patch doll needed a signature on her butt cheek to be “real” and why 3 stripes were better than two on tracksuit pants.  He even held onto his Datsun Sunny for so long that we could see the road go by through the holes in the floor.

We didn’t want for anything, but the focus was always on hard work, having fun and being part of the community.



So, it took everyone by surprise (including me) when, after spending 15 years in roles where I was trying to make things better, I transitioned over the lucrative but murky world of financial markets where everyone is OBSESSED with money, power and the mythical discretionary bonuses.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You

Originally sceptical, I woke up to the reality of the gender pay gap around 8 years ago.  It was a sunny Wednesday morning and I was enjoying a coffee in my backyard.  I was about 18 months into a leadership role when I got a nervous call from my boss at the time (who I really liked and had been instrumental in my progression to a P&L role) saying

“Have you opened it?”

“Opened what?”

THE file”

WHAT file?”

“Ok, I know you are on your day off, so I suggest you don’t open it and we can talk about it tomorrow at breakfast, Bye”

I walked inside, opened my email, and saw our HR partner had sent an excel file to our leadership team with everyone’s salaries in it INCLUDING ALL OF OURS.   As I scrolled through I felt terrible for her, it must be every HR person’s worst nightmare.

Then I saw my salary compared to my (male) colleagues.

To understand my reaction, you need to know I was a top performer, on the executive pipeline, had the largest financial responsibility and the fastest growing business, ran 17 projects on top of my day job and exceeded my KPIs from year 1.  Yet in spite of this…


“I was on the lowest salary of all the LT, earning just 70% of some of my peers”


Peers who had less financial responsibility, lower performance, no projects and many of whom were one-trick ponies with no runway. As I felt the disbelief, shock and humiliation wash over me, I eventually settled on outrage and a cowardly, “Stuff this, I’m out”.  In my defence I had two kids under 5, was struggling with the juggle, the 4am starts and exhausted by all the daily alpha BS I was putting up with.

The next day I met my boss and we set off to walk to a breakfast meeting, my resignation burning a hole in my handbag.  I started by asking:


“So… if I’m worth 30% LESS, why do you give me 100% MORE work, responsibility, strategic initiatives and problems to solve”


He went through a thousand justifications from the salary I came from was lower, that he corrects it in the bonuses and that I had less “markets” experience.  As I sat there in silence looking less convinced by the minute, he paused, looked at me directly and simply said:


“I’m sorry, I’ll fix it.”


And a whole bunch of nice things that kept my resignation letter safely hidden in my handbag.  To his credit he fixed it quickly and we moved on.

But I still wonder what would have happened if that lovely HR partner hadn’t sent the file.


Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

Flash forward 3 years.

I had done well enough in my role to get promoted and was 1 of 3 leaders running markets sales businesses across different customer segments and channels.  I enjoyed my job, had a great team and together, we delivered some good things for the organisation.

The bonuses we earned were welcome (of course) and more than I’d ever imagined earning in my life, but I was always motivated by the challenge and didn’t have the stomach for all the sucking up and manoeuvring that happened at bonus time.

My boss this time round wasn’t someone I deeply admired or respected.  Yet he empowered me and was a very interesting leader to watch.  He was also the person that once a year wrote a, completely discretionary, number next to my name that became my bonus.  That could be anywhere from 0 to 400% of my already crazy base salary.

The year before I left, bonus time came around, and an accidental hit of the email send button was my friend/awakening again.  An EA had mistakenly sent the bonus letter of one of my my peers to the OTHER peer instead.  This lead to a conversation between us about bonuses (which is never good in an opaque system) and I found out both of my peers had bonuses DOUBLE that of mine.  Given that I shared a P&L with one of them, had the same performance score and he had openly been on cruise control for the year I was shocked, but mainly by my own stupidity.

This time around, I realised it was systemic and wanted to prevent it from happening to other women, so I took a deep breath and escalated it to management.  The senior leader I did this with claimed to be a huge advocate for equality.  She was shocked and promised to look into it straight away.  For months I heard nothing, then when I embraced the awkward and tried again I was told the LT had said:


“But she already earns SO MUCH money”


So true, but not the point my friends.

How You Can Learn from My Mistakes

For Leaders

  • Good AND bad leaders make mistakes on pay equity. Don’t be complacent
  • Pay for the job being done, not the person’s last salary or years’ experience
  • The more transparent pay is, the more women apply and the fairer the outcome
  • Don’t rely on women to negotiate, because even they do, we punish them for it
  • Bonuses should never be opaque or discretionary
  • If you haven’t already done a pay audit, start one now. Even if you are convinced you don’t have a problem. If you need some coaching/templates on how to do this, we’d love to help

For Women

  • Don’t be like me and accept the first offer thinking giddily “wow that’s so much money”. It’s not humble, it’s stupid
  • Ask for transparency or at least the range of salaries in your team and where you sit
  • Be clear on your value and how you contribute to the team
  • Be that woman who supports other women

I hope this was helpful.



Read more posts