The disparity between the incomes of working men and woman got bigger in 2003, the first time in four years that the gap widened.

For every dollar men made in 2003, the Census Bureau reported, women made 75.5 cents. That was down from 76.6 cents in 2002. The median income for men working full-time that year was $40,668, as compared with $30,724 for women.

Vicky Lovell, study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, called the relative drop in women’s income “very worrisome.” Interviewed by Barbara Hagenbaugh of USA Today, Lovell said, “It does suggest that some of the gains women had been making relative to men, they are now losing. The recession may be officially over, but women are still feeling the effects of the economic slowdown.”

How significant is the discrepancy between men’s and women’s compensation . . . really? Are we comparing apples to apples?

Or is it due to the fact that men have, statistically speaking, more years of steady employment behind them than women?

Do these numbers account for other contributory factors, such as education, average hours worked, type of jobs held, etc?

I’ll bet not.

But that doesn’t matter. Because the solution to the problem — the problem of women being relatively underpaid — is the same regardless of the circumstances behind the data.

If you are a woman and you feel you are being underpaid, here’s what you should do about it.

1. Recognize that your current compensation may be a function of your sex or it may be a reflection of your work. Before you take a political or legal course of action (which will force a political or legal reaction from your employer), do some investigating. Begin by finding out what your company’s policies, if any, are regarding compensation and raises. Find out where you stand relative to them in terms of how long you’ve been working and the kind of work you do. When you compare your salary with that of men in your company, be sure to take into consideration all the relevant factors, including the “subjective” ones.

2. Once you’ve determined that your compensation is relatively low, make an appointment with your boss. Instead of complaining that you are not making as much money as “some others doing the same thing,” tell him that you believe you can be a much more valuable employee and that you’ve come up with a self-improvement plan to do that. Explain how you are going to start working harder to make his working life better. Focus on business goals: improving the product and creating more profits. Come up with reasonable but worthy objectives.

3. Ask your boss to give you a three-month deadline (or longer, if you think you need it) to show him what you can do. Then fix the date by making an appointment with him to formally review your progress at that point.

4. Confirm the meeting in writing.

5. Do everything you promised to do and then some. Make it a point to get into the office before your boss does. And make sure you document your successes in writing.

6. When the date of your review arrives, go into it with a positive attitude. This is your opportunity to ask for a substantial raise. If you have proven yourself to be at least as valuable as a man in your position, you should expect to get an increase that brings you up to at least as much as he is making.

If your boss doesn’t come through, you could probably make a strong, legal discrimination case against the business. But why bother? Now that you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a job that commands a higher salary, it will probably be easier to go elsewhere and get even more money from a new (better) employer.

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