Own It: How Female Executives Can Take Control of Their Brand

It’s no secret that female executives in the United States still earn less than their male counterparts. The explanation is a complex mix of individual choices, self-confidence (or lack thereof), differing standards for men and women, and at times discrimination—subtle or otherwise.

Closing the pay gap nationwide is a worthy goal, and one that legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is working to address. But in the interim, it’s essential for every woman to make the best case possible for her own professional worth. Here are five strategies you can use to ensure your true value is reflected in your pay.

Understand your value—for yourself, for your company, and against the broader job market

You’ll never get what you’re worth if you don’t understand what makes you uniquely valuable to your company.  Leading from the Edge explains how having a strong sense of self (knowing who you are and the value that you desire to create in the world) is probably one of the most important essential trails of leadership.

Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future advises leaders use techniques like a 360 analysis, either conducted by yourself or an outside executive coach, to get clear on how you’re currently perceived by others. Then, you should hone your leadership platform and narrative so that you can succinctly explain how your strengths contribute to the bottom line.

Choose where to engage

Do you accept the consulting job or the management position? Work on the new China initiative or stay closer to home? Join a male-dominated industry or seek out a field that’s more gender-balanced? Where you decide to invest your time and professional energy can have a huge impact on your future. Sometimes the best leadership development (and subsequent exposure) comes from extra-curricular assignments that are beyond the scope of one’s day-to-day role.

Consider the example of an operations leader who took on broader leadership responsibility by leading the company’s women’s action network.  She was so successful in this side-assignment that when this role opened formally, the CEO asked her to take on the chief diversity officer role. This assignment was not a logical progression within the operations function, but it exposed her to new ways to bring her skills and talents to the company.

Know where your focus lies—and understand the trade-offs

Dorie once interviewed a job candidate who declared herself to be a passionate French horn player; she had graduated from conservatory, spent all her evenings and weekends playing music, and was clearly trying to find a way to make this her professional focus. Dorie didn’t hire her because it was obvious the candidate’s energy and attention would be elsewhere, and not on the very demanding job that needed to be filled.

It’s fine to put French horn playing, or your graduate studies, or parenthood first. Indeed, some jobs are perfect for people who want shorter hours or more flexibility. But others (often fast-track opportunities) simply can’t accommodate it as well. Know where you want to focus and recognize the consequences of those choices.

Don’t be afraid to ask

Sheryl Sandberg urges women to negotiate when they’re offered a job—period.  Many women simply accept the first salary offer for fear that the offer will be rescinded entirely if they’re perceived as difficult or demanding. But asking for more is actually a powerful way to cement your brand as high-quality.

Indeed, when Katie Couric joined The Today Show, she made a point of asking for a 50-50 split with then-host Bryant Gumbel because she believed asking for less meant she wouldn’t be taken seriously and would be doomed to covering puppies and recipes. (She ultimately received 48 percent to his 52 percent, far better than she likely would have been offered otherwise.)

Ensure your brand speaks for you.

The best way to get what you’re worth is to have employers and clients seek you out specifically because of a strong reputation. You can draw them to you by creating insightful content online that demonstrates your expertise and by having a “wingman” (a like-minded colleague) to talk you up and sing your praises to others. You can do the same for him or her. You’ll get far fewer price objections when someone simply has to do business with you because they’ve heard so many good things about you.

At times, female executives may choose to work in less remunerative fields or prioritize flexibility over salary. Those are perfectly fine choices. But for anyone who would like to ensure they’re compensated fairly (whether monetarily or in other ways), these strategies will help you get there.

Co-written with Annmarie Neal, this post first appeared at astd.org: