The gender wage gap is closing very slowly. Here's how you can ensure you're getting all the pay you deserve now. Thinkstock By Gillian B. White, Reporter October 10, 2014 We've all heard the frustrating statistics: Despite making tons of headway in education and the labor force, women make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Why this wage gap exists is hotly debated. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that many women, at one time or another, may find themselves making less than their male counterparts. Though the policies and culture that create income inequality aren't likely to change overnight, that doesn't mean you have to take your lighter paycheck with a curtsy and a smile. You can maximize your earning potential with these five tips. See Also: Jobs That Pay Women More Than Men 1) Build money-making skills. All too often we think of graduation as the end of tests, classroom time and structured learning. Some of us even celebrate by tweeting ecstatic proclamations like "last class EVER!" (Just me?) But in reality, women (and men) need to be vigilant when it comes to building (and sharpening) their skill sets. Whether you majored in a high-paying field, such as economics, or one that has fewer high-paying jobs, such as art history, adding applicable skills and certifications to your résumé will help fatten your paycheck. Skill-building is particularly important for women, who miss out on earnings in some of the highest-paying fields. According to PayScale.com, advanced computer skills, such as Ruby on Rails, Java and SAS, can help you boost earnings by more than 8% in fields related to data analysis or computer science. Other capabilities, such as data modeling or fluency in Spanish, can increase salaries by about 5% in social work and other fields in which the ability to communicate with a broad array of people is a boon. Don't worry: You don't need to pony up thousands of dollars for an advanced degree or even pay for courses in order to gain these lucrative skills. There are many online coding schools, such as Code Academy, where you can learn the basics for free. See how you can use free classes to boost your career. Advertisement 2) Look for a job with built-in balance. Often, women bear the brunt of familial responsibility. That can include everything from caring for an elderly parent to being the person tasked with picking up a sick child in the middle of a school day. Unfortunately, time away from the office may hold you back at many workplaces. For example, if you need to take care of a sick relative and have to regularly duck out at 5 p.m. or take personal days, your absences may work against you when it comes to promotions or being awarded major projects. If you decide to have a baby, maternity leave will likely have an immediate, direct impact on your finances. Although the Family Medical Leave Act requires your employer to allow you up to 12 weeks of time off, it does not require your employer to pay you. Some companies may offer paid maternity leave anyway, but many employers give you short-term disability leave instead, which typically pays about two-thirds of your regular salary. Plus, if you want to be with your newborn full-time for more than the doctor-prescribed six to eight weeks of medical leave you're allowed, you'll have to either use vacation days or opt to take unpaid leave. "If everyone leaned out, we would have a better working environment," says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University who once taught famed Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. According to Goldin, if the majority of workers (both men and women) made a point of creating a more equal work-life balance, then those whose personal lives demand more time away from the office would be penalized less. Until that happens, says Goldin, look for jobs that provide flexibility or built-in balance without limiting your growth opportunities. For instance, some physicians who work for a group practice can often share or hand off patients without fear of losing out on future opportunities. When researching a company, be sure to gather some intel on whether or not they have family-friendly policies. Publications such as Working Mother publish annual lists of the best companies for moms trying to balance career and family. Advertisement Knowing that your time away from the office won't sideline your career can give you peace of mind and allow you to keep working, even through a hectic personal schedule. A job that allows you to work from home can also provide innate balance, allowing you to juggle both personal and professional tasks in the same space. 3) Negotiate from the start… Talking dollars and cents with a potential employer makes most people nervous. According to Salary.com, only about 41% of employees negotiate their salaries. When broken down by gender, those numbers skew even worse for women: About 46% of men say that they always negotiate, but only 30% of women say the same. About 39% of men think that negotiating is uncomfortable, but more than half of women cite hesitation about bargaining for salary. If you overcome that fear, you can pocket much more on your very first day—and set yourself up for even greater pay in the long run. So as soon as you start thinking about accepting an offer, be prepared to negotiate your salary. A little research via PayScale, Glassdoor or Monster can help you figure out the going rate for your position, and you should point to additional skills or specific experience that might increase your worth to the company. When I landed my first job, I didn't negotiate my salary; I just happily signed my contract. In my second job, simply bringing up the suggested salary started a conversation that led to a starting salary that was $5,000 higher than the one listed. Now that I'm older and (hopefully) wiser, I make a point of discussing my salary before agreeing to any new work prospect. Advertisement 4) …and keep negotiating. Once you've started a new job (and successfully negotiated your starting salary), that doesn't mean that you can stop talking about compensation (though many of us do, especially women). Even if you receive a standard annual bump of 2% to 3% (good for you!), you should consider asking for more—if you feel you've earned it. To help make the case for a raise during an annual review, general negotiating advice applies for both genders, of course: Keep a running list of your accomplishments, especially anything that can be measured monetarily; stay aware of what nearby companies pay for your level of work; and time your request appropriately. If your job doesn't offer you an annual review, set aside some time with your managers to discuss your contributions and compensation. Women, though, have to approach the topic differently from men. While men may do well by being aggressive with their negotiations, many studies have shown that the same behavior is not beneficial for women. "Women have to worry much more than men about how they will be perceived when they ask for what they want," say Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don't Ask, on their site of the same name. "For women who are pragmatists, asking for what they want in a more social, friendly way can be a very effective strategy for getting what they want—without turning people against them." 5) Know your options. It pays to shop around the job market. The amount of time married women stick with an employer has been steadily increasing, according to a recent study by the American Sociological Review, but job tenure for men and single women has been on the decline. That loyalty may hurt married women financially. On-the-job raises are often capped to low-single-digit percentages. Overall, Kiplinger expects wages to rise by 4% a year by 2017. But snagging a new position at a different company may allow for a much bigger jump in pay. Connecting with people in your field is one of the best ways to peruse your options. "Networking is really important. It helps you stay current and find out about good job opportunities," says Ariana Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. You can also learn important insider details, including other companies' compensation levels, how friendly they are to flexible scheduling, or how quickly workers can climb the corporate ladder. Advertisement How do you network? Keep in touch with friends, mentors and colleagues, and be a valuable resource for them. Not only will your benevolence do them good, it will also encourage them to help you in return. Social media can be another great way to connect with colleagues in your field who you might not be able to meet in person. Even if you would ultimately prefer to stay at your current job, learning about outside positions will give you an idea of the types of roles, and salary, you might now be qualified for. Not selling yourself short is a key to earning more over the long term, says Hegewisch. "Apply to jobs even if you're not totally sure you're qualified. If they think you can't do it, they won't hire you, but don't limit yourself." If you do get an offer elsewhere, you might even use the opportunity to start a conversation about a raise or promotion at your current company. Just be prepared to walk if you use this tactic and your boss decides not to budge.