How women can negotiate for better pay past their 'peak earning age' of 44

According to a report from Payscale, a woman's salary peaks at age 44. Getting unstuck isn’t easy, but there are a number of negotiation tactics that can help.
Business people shaking hands
A recent report from Payscale shows that on average, a woman reaches her "peak career earnings" at age 44. Her pinnacle median salary is $66,700, while her male colleague reaches $101,200, on average, and has until age 55 to get there.zoff-photo / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Nicole Spector

This past year it occurred to me that for the first time in my freelance writing and editing career, if not the entirety of my adult working life, that I am doing pretty okay financially. Big ticket moves like buying a house or even paying off the five-year car loan aren’t yet on the table, but I’ve alleviated almost all credit card debt and have contributed more to my savings into my retirement fund.

“If I keep on this upward trajectory, imagine where I could be in ten years from now, when I’m 45,” I thought. “I could be making double what I make now, if not more.”

My optimism for the future remains intact, but I admit it faltered after looking at a recent report from Payscale which shows that on average, a woman reaches her “peak career earnings” at age 44. Her pinnacle median salary is $66,700, while her male colleague reaches $101,200, on average, and has until age 55 to get there.

It’s as preposterous as it is depressing — and it’s a real problem for women.

“Women often ask me if they should remove years on their resume and instantly make their valuable work experience disappear to appear younger,” says Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster.com. “Add the gender pay gap to ageism and it can feel like a double-struggle.”

What’s fueling this gender disparity and what can women do to continue advancing their careers and earnings as they age?

The cost of motherhood and the ‘messy middle’

Yana Rodgers, economist and faculty director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, says “a likely explanation is some women are returning to work in their mid-forties after taking time away — or working in lower-paying jobs with greater flexibility — for child-rearing, but the jobs to which they have access pay less.”

Meanwhile, “men are more likely to stay in the same career track throughout the child-rearing period and continue to advance,” says Rodgers.

In addition to these hidden costs of motherhood, there is also evidence of the “messy middle” at work, says Linda Babcock, faculty director of the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

The term “messy middle”, as Babcock explains, refers to a common blindside within corporations: They do a decent job of retaining entry-level women, and are improving in how they treat women in top positions; but they’re failing to advance women along the middle of the totem pole.

“What happens is women just stagnate there,” says Babcock. “They stall out because they don’t get the same opportunities as men and they aren’t pushed on assignments that would get them the visibility to go to the next level.”

Babcock finds that women get stuck “whether they have a college degree or not.”

Getting unstuck isn’t easy, but there are a number of negotiation tactics that can help.

If you’re not thriving, ask your boss what you can do to better help the company

“I tell women to understand what work they do that matters most to the organization and focusing on these activities,” says Babcock, who co-authored the books “Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation‹and Positive Strategies for Change" and "Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want”. “I also [advise] women to seek activities that are more high-profile and to not get bogged down doing the work that men tend to pass on to women.”

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If your job is of an administrative nature, and you feel you don’t have the opportunity to do the more high-profile work you want to do that could help advance your career, consider scheduling a chat with your boss to review your goals within the company.

“Perhaps it's time to sit down with your boss and say ‘Hey, I'm not really thriving here’,” says Babcock. “What can I do to really help this organization succeed?’”

If your boss isn’t supportive of your aspirations to rise up, then frankly “it’s time to look for another job,” says Babcock. “If your supervisor is doing things to keep you stuck, it's very hard to get unstuck.”

Know your worth by doing your homework

You’ve probably heard a million times that you need to “know your worth” — a negotiation must.

How exactly does one calculate this?

You can start by using sites like Glassdoor to search the salaries and compensation figures around your job title (you can contextualize by location). If you’re making $60k, but other folks in your field and area are making $70k, that’s empowering information for you to bring up during an annual review or to keep in your front pocket ahead of a big interview.

Leila Bulling Towne, an executive coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area adds that knowing your worth is important because your boss might actually not.

“You can't assume he or she gets how important your value is,” Towne says. “Get figures and details. Make it easy for your company to recognize how relevant [you] are.”

Ask the men what they’re making

The more we talk about pay at work and are transparent about inequalities, the quicker we can make progress.

If feasible, talk to your male peers at work about salary. Find out what they’re making.

“Women tend to ask other women [questions about salary],” says Babcock. “We should also be asking men.”

If they’re making more than you, this is another matter you can bring up with your boss.

Embrace the ‘humblebrag’

“Often times, especially when I worked in corporate recruiting, women who were more experienced devalued their decades of accomplishments,” says Salemi. “The ‘humblebrag’ wasn't embraced and therefore, they weren't able to fully market and sell their awesome abilities to do the job. Their skills and experience rocked, but tended to fade instead of sparkle.”

Don’t be shy about singing your achievements, and be sure to highlight everything you bring to the table “such as years of experience, relationships with clients, knowledge of competitors, soft skills, ability to work a room, manage a team — the works,” says Salemi.

Up against millennial talent? Focus on how to improve yourself and leverage your experience

A worry that might come up for more mature women is that a fresh-faced millennial will get the job you’ve been working toward for years. This concern is probably not unwarranted — especially if you’ve been stuck in “the messy middle” for a while. Rather than perceiving this potential competition as a reason to give up, see this as an inviting challenge.

“For a woman over 44, who may be up against a younger woman, I would try and stay focused on what it is you bring to the table in terms of demonstrated experience,” says Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. “If you believe your younger colleagues or competition have skills or perspective that you are lacking and that this must be addressed, then come up with a solution about how you will address that gap through teaming or partnership. Get ahead of what you are concerned you might lack with a planned solution. Use the challenges to find opportunities for your own growth.”

Don’t let the doom and gloom of these reports get you down. Things are improving.

Earlier, I mentioned that when I read this Payscale report my optimism about the future faltered. These reports, informative and necessary as they are, have a way of doing that. It’s helpful to remember that while, yes, equality continues to elude women in the workplace, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Babcock points out that “every year things get a little bit better” in the realm of gender parity.

Additionally, there are middle-aged women who are nowhere near peaking in earnings — and these aren’t just CEOs in elite tech and finance sectors.

Cynthia Perthuis, an elder care strategist and owner of a Senior Care Authority branch in NYC, is turning 60 in a few months and is at the top of her game — even after taking a few “vacations” from working when her two children were young.

“At my age, I am currently at my highest job satisfaction ever and I can only see it expanding,” Perthuis says. “My earning is not as high this year, but I recently started a new business. I have told my daughter that my workplace experiences will philosophically pave the way for her generation and I am happy to have been a part of that struggle. It doesn't have to be that way, [with women’s earnings peaking at 44], and, in my lifetime, I will see a big difference.”

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