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“Now dear, don't get emotional it's only money”

In her latest series of blogs on equal pay, Paula Lee tackles the emotional aspect surrounding the issue.

Posted on 01 March 2018

It seems almost without exception, women are a little nervous about starting the pay conversation. Nervous about being wrong, nervous about being right and heaven forfend, the very darkest fear of all; nervous of becoming emotional during the actual conversation.

The fear of being seen as emotional is so tangible for some women that it actually stops them from starting the pay conversation. Personally I deplore the ‘don’t get emotional in the workplace’ edict.  I think it is trite and silly.

Pause for a second and mentally picture a workplace without emotion - why would anyone even want to work in such an environment? No-one would be smiling or laughing, the shared sense of loyalty you enjoy with some of your colleagues would be no more, your pride at a job well done – gone, your sense of camaraderie consigned to history.  Imagining such a workplace reveals that it is not an expression to be taken literally. So why say it?

My view is that its true use is perhaps a touch sinister - it is a silencer of women. When I speak to women about this topic, it is clear that to many  of them, being regarded as emotional must be avoided at all cost. But this fear perpetuates the status quo. And as we all know, the status quo is no ally to change.
Silence is not golden in this situation.

Let’s face it, what your employer pays you is an emotional subject. And the thought that Peter might be paid more than you for doing equal work is going to smart – a lot. For most people the question of pay strikes at the heart of their professional identity and this is what makes it such an emotional subject (for men and women).  When your identity feels challenged, it has the potential to knock you off balance; it is that loss of balance which causes those pesky emotions inside us to rise up and threaten our cherished poise.
My advice remains what it’s been throughout my practice - recognise and embrace just how emotionally charged the issue might be for you. Remind yourself that just because you have strong feelings on the issue, does not mean it should be ignored: quite the opposite in fact.

Do not let a fear of losing composure be a barrier to making enquiries about pay within your organisation.

There is however an undeniable fact and that is whilst emotions in the workplace are a good and necessary thing, convulsing in racking sobs during a difficult conversation - whilst not an absolute barrier to a successful outcome - is very likely to disrupt proceedings, blur the message and prevent you from getting your desired outcome.  If it happens it happens – so be it. Wipe your nose on your sleeve and press on – ‘if you’re going through Hell – keep going’ and all that… but with good solid prior preparation you will absolutely be able to retain a ninja-like poise throughout (not forgetting that being in control of your emotions is in itself a very powerful feeling).

The aim of preparing is not to stop you being knocked off balance during the conversation (in fact it is more realistic to expect to be knocked off balance) but rather preparation will ensure that when you do get knocked off, you can  stabilise yourself without missing a beat. With preparation you will expect the unexpected and be ready for it.

I promise you, the more you interrogate your feelings and question which thoughts they are in response to, and the more you consider the possible responses your employer might have - the more confidently  you will navigate the conversation.  If you cannot face preparing alone, explore the issues with a trusted friend – I don’t mean the one who always agrees with you. I mean the one who loves you enough to be straight with you. To help you get started here are 5 things for you to consider, these apply to all difficult conversations – not just those about pay in your organisation:

  1. What is the issue I am trying to resolve?
  2. What assumptions am I making about the situation and my employer?
  3. What feelings does the situation trigger for me?
  4. What do I want to achieve from the conversation?
  5. What common ground is there between me and my employer?

Remember the primary objective is to express what you see, why you see it that way and how you feel about it. Your aim is to learn if there is an unequal pay issue at play. 

If you want to look further into how you might be better able to ‘discuss what matters most to you’ – I highly recommend ‘Difficult Conversations’ by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. I have read it so many times I have lost count and every time I do I learn even more.  Go you!

Paula Lee
Employment Equal pay Group claims

Paula Lee

Paula is an employment lawyer with a wealth of experience. She always puts her clients at the centre of everything she does, helping them to defend their rights fiercely