9 traits of underearners

I just read Barbara Stanny's “Secrets of Six-Figure Women.” I was happy to find that I share similar traits to the 150 women she interviewed. But there was a section that stood out to me, mostly because I didn't expect it to stand out to me.

We previously reviewed Stanny's book “Overcoming Underearing.” Guest reviewer Jeremy M. wrote:

“[Stanny] learned that the big difference between highly successful women and less successful women was how they valued themselves and what they were willing to do to get what they wanted.”

I've never thought of myself as an underearner. I value myself highly, and I'm willing to work very, very hard to get what I want. So I was surprised when I got to the chapter on underearning. Stanny outlines nine traits of the typical underearner, and contrary to what I thought, I fit the bill for quite a few.

(Note: While the book definitely addresses women's issues, I think men can get just as much from Stanny's insight.)

1. Underearners Have a High Tolerance for Low Pay

“High earners make darn sure they're well compensated for their time and work,” Stanny writes. “But it rarely dawns on (or appeals to) an underearner to set her sights on a higher salary.”

As I read this, I thought to myself, I wouldn't say I have a high tolerance for low pay, but I have tolerated it in the past.

I tolerated it because I felt I had to pay my dues. Low pay never lasted long, as, after a while, I began to suspect I was worth more only to discover that, indeed, I was.

But the fact that I was rationalizing this made me feel uneasy about what was to come.

2. They Underestimate Their Worth

Stanny points out that “women, in particular, have a tendency to undervalue themselves.” She uses various university studies to support her argument. In those studies, women consistently paid themselves less than men did for doing the same task. Psychologists call it the “depressed entitlement effect,” saying that, subconsciously or otherwise, minorities devalue themselves.

When I decided to become a freelance writer, for example, I assumed it wouldn't be a very lucrative career. And even now, in the back of my head, there's the stigma that writers should be poor.

Stanny points out that you shouldn't put a limit on what you think you should be making. Within reason; she admits that there are certain fields where six figures aren't possible (though she says it's still possible to earn more). “Women accept lower wages because they presume they must deserve less,” Stanny writes.

Although I'd like to think that “women” is interchangeable with “writers” in my situation, the point is, perhaps I underestimate my worth.

I hear people talk about what they're “worth” a lot. My old, practical philosophy is that you're only worth what someone is willing to pay you. But that philosophy is evolving. It's not just about how much you're paid, but how much you can offer.

3. They're Willing to Work For Free

“Underearners regularly give away their time, knowledge and skills for nothing. They'll work at no charge without thinking twice. Most of the time, it's so ingrained they aren't even conscious they're doing it.”

Stanny's not just talking about directly working for free, but also the indirect work we often don't think to bill. She cites an example of a woman who was offered to speak at a women's finance event — for free. She refused, unless they agreed to pay her.

“It's not right to ask women to have economic empowerment and not practice it themselves,” the woman argued. Stanny added that the woman did occasionally do things pro bono.

“…those are choices I make, not obligations.”

I found it significant that Stanny used the term “pro bono” in place of “free” when describing work that the woman chose. I also wondered how the woman determined what was a choice and what was an obligation.

I've written about how I've done work for free, because when I was switching careers, every bit of advice I read suggested that you may have to work for free or next-to-nothing in the beginning in order to build a portfolio.

So yes, I was willing to work for free. Am I doomed to be an underearner?

4. They're Lousy Negotiators

“Underearners are reluctant to ask for more,” Stanny writes. “…Underearners hold back simply because they're too scared. ‘What if I raise my prices, and they laugh in my face,' said Annie, a bookbinder.”

I'll admit, I'm scared to negotiate. Even at flea markets, I have a hard time asking for the mutually understood discount. But I'm not afraid of being laughed at; my fear is a fiscal one. What if they don't consider me for future projects? What if they decide to hire someone else altogether? These are the understandable doubts that run through my head, but perhaps I'm devaluing myself.

While reading this, I felt a little disappointed in myself. But Stanny had some encouraging and empowering words:

“It's hard for most women in all income brackets to demand more. High earners might not like it (and they rarely do), but they do it. That's how these six-figure women got where they are. They do what they are afraid to do.”

5. They Practice Reverse Snobbery

Hate rich people? Then you might be an underearner. I harbor no ill will toward the rich, but I am admittedly kind of a frugal snob. When I see a $100,000 car, I roll my eyes. And that's not very nice of me. Many underearners equate money with limitations, so they grow to become resentful of it. Stanny believes this is indicative of someone resigned to earning less.

“Just about every underearner I've met believes real wealth comes at too high a price. … The irony is that few people work harder or obsess more about money — or rather, the lack of it — than underearners do.”

6. They Believe in the Nobility of Poverty

“At the same time underearners are spurning the wealthy, they are singing their own praises for surviving on so little.”

Despite my financial situation, in the back of my mind, I still have an impoverished mind-set that's no longer doing me much good. I've been trying to rise above the notion that poverty gives you access to all sorts of qualities wealth can't.

“…many underearners genuinely believe money is tainted, materialism is bad, and there's something virtuous about surviving on a shoestring,” Stanny explains. “According to this line of reasoning, they are much better people for rejecting financial gain.”

While I still believe in the value of frugality, I do see her point. You can overdo it. You might spend too much energy on a false sense of virtue instead of realizing your earning potential. You might put forth a little less effort to earn more, because, in the back of your mind, you equate wealth with materialism and vice.

7. They're Subtle Self-Saboteurs

Stanny argues underearners unwittingly set themselves up for failure:

“…applying for work they're not qualified for, creating problems with coworkers, procrastinating or leaving projects unfinished, hopping from one job to another, always stopping just short of reaching their goals. The common thread is their propensity to be scattered, distracted and unfocused.”

She adds that underearners always seek out a scapegoat or a savior rather than take responsibility for their own behavior.

8. They're Codependent

“There's a fine line between loyal employee or devoted wife and sacrificial lamb,” Stanny writes.

Indeed, when it comes to work, I often find myself volunteering to bear the brunt of the load. Of course, employers come to expect this after a while, and this eventually leads to resentment, which Stanny predicts:

“Subjugating our needs for the sake of others inevitably leads to resentment, depression, burnout and breakdown.”

I still believe in workplace gratitude, but I'm reconsidering my level of service. I do tend to tiptoe the boundary between loyal and sacrificial.

9. They Live in Financial Chaos

Finally, Stanny makes the point that underearners are “more likely to be in debt, have smaller savings, fewer (if any) investments, and little idea where their money goes.”

While I'm debt-free and handling my finances well, there was a quote in this section that stood out to me. Stanny interviewed financial counselor Mikelann Valterr, who described the psychology behind debt:

“Debt is about giving your energy away … it cuts off our options, giving the illusion there's enough because when the money runs out, you can just whip out a credit card and continue spending. You never have to confront head-on that you aren't making enough. Which is why people use debt. It keeps you from confronting your fear of success, making hard decisions about how to earn more, and experiencing the discomfort when life becomes more expansive.”

It takes courage to get out of debt, Stanny says.

And really, it takes courage to overcome any of the traits on her list. Negotiating, not always volunteering, letting go of some of my past philosophies — it's overwhelming and a little scary to consider all of this.

But she would argue that this fear is natural. Six-figure women are scared, too. They just do it anyway.

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