'Don't Ask, Don't Get': How to Fix the Gender Gap in Salary Negotiations

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Many women have trouble asking for more money at work—but it doesn't have to be that way.

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Paramount Pictures

A decade ago, my grandfather waxed rhapsodic about my first job out of college at a big publishing house in Manhattan, excited by every detail. That is, he was excited, until we got to my paycheck, which bore a paltry number that was irreconcilable with the cost of living in New York.

"Baby, do you know how to ask for the money?" It was simple, direct question, but my answers were not. I spoke of industry standards and perceived meritocracies, all of which he rejected, one after another. Born and raised poor in Detroit, he was a high school drop-out who owned three car dealerships by the time he was my age.

I shrugged his question off as the assumption of a gifted businessman from a different era, but as 2012's year-end reviews wrap up, I am reminded that my grandfather was right, and I was wrong.

Many women don't know how to ask for the money. So many, in fact, that Carnegie Mellon runs a Negotiation Academy for Women co-founded by Linda C. Babcock, a professor of economics. Babcock has also co-authored two books on the subject, Women Don't Ask and Ask For It. In her first book, she offers some troubling statistics:

  • Men initiate negotiations about four times as often as women.
  • When asked to choose a metaphor to describe the negotiation process, women picked "going to the dentist." For comparison, Men chose "winning a ballgame."
  • Women enter negotiations with pessimistic expectations about what wage increases are available, and thus if they do negotiate, they don't ask for much: 30 percent less than men.
  • 20 percent of adult women say they never negotiate at all, even when it may be appropriate.

"If you don't ask, you don't get," said Holly Schroth, who holds a doctorate in social psychology and is a senior lecturer at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Schroth urges female students to vie for larger bonuses and salary increases and offers several strategies. In her experience, women have proven more successful with off-cycle requests, meaning they seek opportunities to negotiate outside of year-end reviews. The best time, Schroth strongly believes, is in the wake of an achievement. Instead of looking for a new job outside the company, where the same problem may come up again, look within. Women should focus on developing skills, which might mean switching departments internally. Regardless of the means, Schroth argues that listing achievements not only makes a woman's case stronger, but allows her to feel more comfortable in the discussion.

In Schroth's experience, there is one exception to the women-don't-ask-for-money rule: While women will avoid arguing on their own behalf, they strongly advocate for their subordinates.

"I was terrific at getting money for lots of people, but very bad at getting it for myself," said Alice Kessler-Harris, a labor historian at Columbia who specializes in women and gender. "We're good at seeing other people's needs and nurturing. I don't want to say it is ingrained, but I myself, despite the intellectual knowledge and my field, couldn't get past it."

Kessler-Harris remembers an article she came across in the early 1990s about gender differences in managerial styles. While men fostered a dog-eat-dog competition, women were able to construct a sense of community among their workers. "Wouldn't it be great if all workers, not just women, fought for their colleagues, instead of just themselves?" she wondered. "We could have a very different labor force."

The thing is, this isn't the 1990s. During the worst recession the United States has experienced in seven decades, the number of women employed full-time grew. In comparison, the male workforce shrank, and yet, according to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, a poll conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, women earned about 79 cents for every dollar made by men, up just one cent from the 2007-2009 survey.

When it comes to wage negotiations, a study published in November 2012 by the National Bureau of Economic Research offers insight as to why women have trouble negotiating salaries—and what sorts of changes employers could make to encourage women to do so. In the paper "Do Women Avoid Salary Negations?" authors Andreas Leibbrandt and John A. List found that "men in contrast to women prefer job environments where the 'rules of wage determination' are ambiguous." Men are more likely to negotiate their salaries when there is no explicit statement that wages are negotiable, however, this pattern reverses when they are told negotiations are possible.

It seems, then, that workplace negotiations are administered in a way that best suits men, and not women. From a historical perspective, women's work outside the domestic sphere is a relatively recent development. When it did occur, it was often regarded as secondary to the primary role as mother, often dismissed as the "mommy track." The process of not just becoming workers, but major earners, has taken place over just a few generations, and it the metamorphosis is far from complete.

When will women be able to ask for the money? Probably around the same time women ask for flexible working hours and the kind of family-comes-first management that has consistently proved successful. As Kessler-Harris said, we could have a very different labor force, but women won't be reconstructing it alone. If the sexes work together on all of these issues, it won't just be better for women, but for men, families, and society as a whole.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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