Why compensation matters: The power of economic advancement and self-reliance

Why is compensation such a big deal? What’s at stake and how should you think about it? Isn’t it more important to focus on what you do and whether that makes you happy vs. how much you get paid?

Recently, I was flying alone through a major airport on a Sunday night after a long week of work-related travel. As I was standing in a long line, a woman who worked for the airline called me out randomly, saying “I know you! You’re strong! You don’t need no man!” and proceeded to come out from behind the desk and give me a massive hug. I honestly don’t know what inspired her to do it, but I must say the exchange left me smiling and feeling emboldened for a few reasons—1) the spontaneous display of sisterhood was one of the best I’ve ever experienced and made me feel warm, fuzzy, and like a million bucks and 2) because I felt a sense of pride in the fact that she was right. I’ve worked hard to build a career and level of economic advancement that I am entirely self-reliant (even though I’m married to someone who could support me). I honestly have no idea how she knew that since we’d never spoken, so I’ll chalk it up to forces of the universe conspiring to create a special moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

If you’ve ever visited Women@Work, you might have noticed that our mission is dedicated to the economic advancement and self-reliance of women and girls around the world. What that means to us is that the best way for women to achieve success and happiness is through maximizing their earning power, which in turn enables self-reliance, which then creates freedom, opportunity, and leverage to do what they want to do—for themselves and those they love.

Many women aren’t in a position to work and/or support themselves for one reason or another. I watched my sister-in-law, who was only three years older than I, battle multiple sclerosis starting in her late 20s, just as she was advancing in a career she loved. As I saw her body and mind deteriorate and eventually succumb to the disease at 48, I realized that she would have done anything to have the opportunities that were staring me in the face, right at a time that I was quite frankly squandering all of them. Seeing what a privilege it was to be able to move freely, to be able to make choices big and small, and basically do anything I decided to achieve, finally got me on the right track, turbo-charging my drive and discipline at the office, gym, and every other part of my life.

The reason we’re leading our series on “Understanding Compensation” with this story and a bit about our mission is to underscore the importance of this topic. What you get paid and how you get paid is the departure point for your freedom, your ability to create choices for yourself. You know the old saying, “Money isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”? Economic advancement and self-reliance is the power to create opportunities for yourself. It’s the power to take care of other people. It’s the power to impact the world around you. It’s the power to have a say in the things that you should be able to influence. It’s the gateway to credibility and having people listen to you and take you seriously. It’s the way you get included in the room and end up in a position to change the things that need to be better—for you and other people whose voices might not otherwise be heard. It’s the power of knowing that you don’t need anyone else—your parents, your partner, or any other man or women for that matter—and realizing what an amazing thing that really is. And all of this directly stems from your compensation—how much you make and how you build wealth for yourself over time.

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to save the world (heck, most of us do, and I still do). I thought the only way to achieve that was through public interest work. I thought that going to work for "the man” was effectively selling out and at cross-purposes with living a life advocating for economic fairness and equality of opportunity. While I continue to believe that public interest work (either in the public sector or as part of a non-profit organization) is a fantastic career path to pursue, I realized over time that being part of the system and achieving a level of success in it puts you in a fantastic position to change it.

I’ve also come to believe that one of the most magnanimous, altruistic things you can do with your life is to be in a position of having the power to give someone else a job and ultimately give them the gift of economic advancement and self-reliance that they can then pay forward to their families. I’ve found that having a successful career in the private sector has enabled me to have enough money to contribute meaningfully to the things I believe in (e.g., funding scholarships and providing access to other educational opportunities). I’ve realized that becoming successful has put me in a position of having a voice without having to yell. For better or for worse, money talks.

This might sound harsh and run counter to what you believe, but I wanted to pass along my point of view because even I’ve been surprised by the freedom and power I’ve gained by having a successful career. I’ve been energized by the impact it’s enabled me to have on so many others in a myriad of contexts—at work, at home, and in my broader community. Even with my own family and immediate friends, I’ve seen my career and economic advancement change the way they treat me, how much they’ll listen to me, how much credibility I have with them, how they ask for guidance and advice. And that’s exactly why this topic of compensation is so darn important. It’s why we must, especially as women, figure out how to maximize our compensation, our economic value, our return on our hard work in school and beyond—for yourself and those who depend on you. It is the way to realize real, meaningful change in our lives at a micro and macro level.

All that said about the critical importance of the topic, it should also be said that compensation is a big, complex quagmire with all kinds of mystery, emotion, stress, subjectivity, and competitiveness involved. Yet this quagmire is unavoidable for us as working women and a challenge that’s just so darn fundamental to everything to everything in your life—at work and at home. Getting this right for yourself is going to require investment and grit—investment of time to analyze the landscape of what’s available, what others are paid, what your market value might be, and the grit to endure what’s likely to feel like an uncomfortable topic and an even more awkward conversation. To be perfectly honest, there’s nothing that scares the crap out of me or unnerves me more than having conversations about comp. Even after all these years of working and being able to tackle all sorts of other difficult conversations head-on without hesitation, I need this whole piece as much as anyone. :)

About Christina


Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.