person standing in profile with their hand on their hip shouting into a pink megaphone with streamers unfurling out of it
We Are/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for software engineer Kate Rotondo to find out her male coworkers were making more money.

First she discovered she made $25,000 less in base salary than a colleague doing the same work as her at a tech giant—and about $20,000 less in restricted stock units, or RSUs, a form of equity compensation that vests over a certain period of time. He was also working remotely from an area with a lower cost of living while Rotondo was based in the pricey Bay Area and commuting three hours most days.

“That, for me, raised a question of: Why am I being asked to do this work under worse conditions for less than my peer?” she says. “Is this an outlier or is everybody making more than me?”

Eight men, she learned when she started asking around, made more money than she did. Rotondo also found another woman at the company whose compensation was similar to her own. A second woman didn’t want to share her salary because she “was embarrassed at how low it was,” Rotondo says.

She logged the information in a spreadsheet and went to a manager. Her complaint was kicked up to her manager’s boss and then human resources. She said she felt ashamed when discovering the inequities and frustrated with the slow response. Months later, following an internal investigation of her compensation, Rotondo says the company determined she’d receive a $0 adjustment.

“It was so incredibly insulting. That was when I started to think that I probably have to leave,” she says. In 2020, she resigned. “You want to believe in the hype…of your employer being a great place,” Rotondo says. To realize that was untrue was hard and disappointing, she adds, something she’s still recovering from now.

Why am I being asked to do this work under worse conditions for less than my peer?

Kate Rotondo

She made her case a matter of public record when she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in part because she wants others to know all their options for recourse—including an EEOC filing like hers. But the process had its downsides.

“I wish I’d known about it earlier, although ultimately the EEOC did not help me achieve justice, so I have very mixed feelings,” she says. “It was not sensitive to the trauma that I had experienced and was actually introducing new traumas by the way they were treating me.” Eventually, she opted to close the formal complaint after losing faith in the process.

Since filing the public complaint in 2020, she’s found a community with fellow whistleblowers, while getting radio silence from some former colleagues. “I’ve had fallouts with quite a few people,” she says.

But she’s not done talking about wage gaps. Addressing pay equity, Rotondo says, is like an ongoing relay race—albeit a decades-long one where she’s running just one leg of the journey. “I can’t pass the baton if I’m not talking about it,” she says.

Pay gaps—and secrecy—persist. But “we’re not going to take this anymore.”

In the U.S., it’s still considered taboo to talk about pay, although millennials and Gen Z are disrupting that norm.

While it’s illegal for employers to discourage workers from discussing pay with one another under the National Labor Relations Act, companies often do try to stop the sharing of numbers. It’s a tactic meant in part to stem the discontent that might arise if employees discover differentials that leaders may attribute—appropriately or not—to factors like seniority, responsibilities, market demand, and cost of living.

Employers hate it when employees start talking about compensation, says Laurie Ruettiman, a human resources consultant and executive advisor. “Pay inequity is one of those weird things where many companies say, ‘We’re working on it,’ and, ‘We believe in transparency,’ and few walk the talk,” she says. So when employees talk amongst themselves and especially when they speak even more publicly about pay gaps, “It shames employers and makes them look like liars. That’s a PR challenge from inside your own house.”

Pay inequity is one of those weird things where many companies say, ‘We’re working on it,’ and, ‘We believe in transparency,’ and few walk the talk.

Laurie Ruettiman

The four women we talked to who’ve spoken up about facing pay inequities say they were motivated to share their experiences to help others facing similar situations in a world where women still make 83 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the American Association of University Women, and Black and Latina women earn 64% and 57% of white, non-Hispanic men’s wages.

When individuals publicly share salaries—whether it’s with a group of colleagues at the bar or in a WhatsApp thread or even more publicly in a lawsuit, on social media, or in the press—it contributes to changing norms about the secrecy of compensation that still exist in many workplaces.

“Americans tend to be very individualistic and think about things like money and workplace conditions as sort of private crosses to bear,” says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at the think-tank New America. But that shouldn’t be the case, she says. And with the COVID-19 pandemic—and wave of workers organizing—that’s continuing to shift. “What we’re seeing is people who are standing up and saying, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore.’”

UX researcher Vivianne Castillo: “I want people to feel less alone.”

Race also plays a role in wage differences and adds another layer of inequitable workplace treatment that women of color have to carry—and then speak out about. In a 2016 Economic Policy Institute study, researchers found that wage differences between Black and white workers had widened, more so among workers with higher education and with work experience.

UX researcher Vivianne Castillo, who is Black, says her earnings at the cloud-based software company she worked at for two years didn’t include RSUs. Her former manager told her workers at her level didn’t receive that equity option, but she says white coworkers at the same level had in fact received RSUs in their compensation packages.

Like Rotondo, learning of the pay disparity was the moment, Castillo says, “when I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be here for a long time.’” Internally, she confronted executives to include race and gender in pay equity analyses and pursued conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives—all of which amounted to additional unpaid labor. She eventually quit, citing in a LinkedIn post “rampant microaggressions and gaslighting.” The pay inequities, she says, were just one aspect of a larger problem.

There’s a lot of people suffering in silence and navigating work, unhealed

Vivianne Castillo

“You’re having to literally fight just so you can barely be recognized and respected at the same level as your white colleagues—why stay there?” says Castillo, who’s now building out her Chicago-based consulting firm, HmntyCntrd, to help individuals and companies create better work cultures that prioritize employee well-being.

“I share my experiences publicly because I want people to feel less alone. I think there’s a lot of people suffering in silence and navigating work, unhealed,” she says. In response to the resignation letter she posted on LinkedIn, “For the most part, people feel seen.”

Others who’ve dealt with toxic work environments have reached out to share their own workplace trauma stories, telling her they’ve left those workplaces, are taking leaves of absence for therapy, or are otherwise taking initiative to prioritize their well-being.

“Those stories remind me of how important it is to share your voice and your story with other people,” Castillo says.

Pastor and influencer Larissa Peña: “Is this a joke?”

Pay gaps aren’t confined to the tech industry. Larissa Peña was stunned when she found out her first job out of college, ostensibly a part-time position, would pay her $12,000 a year. A Florida church had offered the aspiring pastor an assistant position on a part-time stipend. Her then-fiance (now husband), meanwhile, was offered a full-time youth pastor position at over $30,000 per year—despite the fact that she had a license to minister with that church and he did not.

“I remember being in the moment, looking at the numbers, and thinking to myself: ‘Is this a joke?’” Peña says. When she found out, she says, she had to fake a smile, but she was gutted, tearing up when she had a moment to herself.

She’d been eager to start working and hoped she and her future husband could find jobs at the same church. They were told, Peña says, that they were taking the salary of one former employee and splitting it between the two of them to effectively take on the role together. Though her position was billed as part-time, in practice she was expected to work nearly as much as her husband. Apart from one day a week when she wasn’t required to work, she says, “We were doing all the same things.” Their compensation, however, didn’t reflect that.

When she protested the pay to her supervisor, she was promised she’d be promoted to a full-time position with full-time pay eventually. And she was, but by the end of her time at the church, she was making $24,000—still 20% less than her husband’s starting salary.

I remember being in the moment, looking at the numbers, and thinking to myself: ‘Is this a joke?’

Larissa Peña

“I had explained to him, ‘Hey, I have more credentials than my husband at this point,’” Peña says. “It wasn’t really a conversation of, ‘Hey, I’m a girl, he’s a guy.’ It was just, ‘Hey, these are my credentials. These are what I should be valued upon.’” When she tried to explain to her supervisor what she felt was unfair, she felt manipulated. Spouses were not typically hired with their partners, she remembers him saying, implying she should be happy with what she had. “It really wasn’t until the very end that I stepped away and the blinders came off,” she says. That’s when she realized: “It’s gender-driven.”

Two years later, she and her husband quit and moved to Texas to volunteer with a different congregation while they pursue other sources of income—Peña as a content creator on TikTok. She shares daily musings about her life as a Latina pastor to tens of thousands of followers on TikTok as well as on other platforms. In one Instagram post, she shared the glaring pay disparity she faced early in her career.

“I felt like that dollar sign was imprinted on me,” she wrote. Later, reflecting on the post, she added: “I just don’t want to see other people experience what I did because it freakin’ sucked. It took a toll on me as an individual, as a woman.” She hopes her vulnerability can empower and encourage other women—especially those seeking to work in ministry like she does—to understand their worth and not settle for just anything.

Teacher-turned-writer Yael Wolfe: “I want that story to be out there for people to find.”

Teacher-turned-writer Yael Wolfe decided to go public about various instances of lost earnings throughout her career in a Medium post for similar reasons.

She wrote about an “unpaid” teacher training that her male coworker did in fact get paid for—even though he was a decade younger and had less education and experience than she did. And then there was a nonprofit position she quit after an employer refused to promote her from a “coordinator” role to a “manager” title or to increase her salary from $37,000 to $40,000 a year. She later found out a man with less than half her experience had been hired to replace her—as a manager making $40,000.

When you realize how maddening it is to watch men get promoted, earn better pay, and receive respect for no other reason than that they are male—it makes an impact that statistics just don’t make.

Yael Wolfe

Wolfe never filed a complaint—and she later regretted not being more vocal with her supervisors and coworkers in the moment. “It’s important to talk more openly about what the wage gap really looks like,” she wrote on Medium about a year after resigning from that last job. “When you realize how maddening it is to watch men get promoted, earn better pay, and receive respect for no other reason than that they are male—it makes an impact that statistics just don’t make.”

Each instance of pay inequity she experienced—the unfairness, the fear of speaking up, the impact on her own career trajectory as well as on other women—angers Wolfe, now a freelance writer and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. But she uses it to fuel her own storytelling and build solidarity with other women.

“I don’t even care if five people read it,” she says. “I want that story to be out there for people to find and allow women to look at it and say, ‘Oh my god. This is happening. It’s happening to me.’”

Updated 6/21/2022