Newsflash: Wage Gap Rages On! Now What Can We Do About It?

So that whole wage gap thing that the administration has taken a zero tolerance stance on and Obama recently issued two executive orders to combat? Yeah, it’s positively thriving in the federal government; data released today found that the average male White House employee earns around $88,600, whereas the average female employee makes about $78,400—a gap of 13%. Mainly because, unsurprisingly, men hold more of the higher-paying, senior jobs in what might be more fittingly called the adMENistration. Given that the wage gap is prevalent pretty much everywhere, surely there must be some pro tips out there for us womenfolk on earning all the dolla dolla billz we rightfully deserve?

OHFERSURE there are. A quick sampling: Just ask. Ask this way. Better not ask. Lean in. Lean out. Recline. Is this starting to sound like the hokey-pokey to anyone else?

According to women-getting-ahead heavyweights like Lean In’s author Sheryl Sandberg and journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipmanwho recently published “The Confidence Gap” on the issuewomen are largely held back by, as the article title suggests, a lack of confidence as compared with male coworkers. Which is definitely part of the story. Surveys out of Carnegie Mellon University reveal that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women. And wasn’t there something about missing 100% of the shots you don’t take?

But there’s a piece missing from these conversations: What happens when negotiating backfires? Sometimes, as in the case of an academic known only as Wwhose story was recently recounted on Jezebelattempting to “take a seat at the table” can land you on the floor. Or something. The point is, women face unique hardships when negotiating. Like W, who, when offered a tenure-track job at Nazareth College, negotiated for higher pay in line with industry standards among a few other “deal sweeteners.” Her request was cordial and she even conceded that “some of these may be easier to grant than others.” Here we go! A woman looking out for her own needs and by any measure, leaning the ef in! Nazareth’s response? They withdrew their offer of employment but wished her “the best in finding a suitable position.”

W was doing all the “right” things according to those who advocate that women just need to be confident and “negotiate hard” on behalf of the strengths they’d be bringing to that proverbial table. Unfortunately, W’s experience isn’t unusual.

On Gender and Job Negotiations

Hannah Riles Bowles, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has studied gender’s effects on job negotiations extensively. And damn do we wish her findings were less depressing. Instead, we have to hit you with this: Bowles has repeatedly found that implicit gender perceptions mean that the advice that women just need to assert themselves in negotiations often blows up in women’s faces. In four studies, Bowles found that people penalized women who initiated higher salary negotiations more than they did men. Moreover, even women penalized other women more than men. Sigh. 

In another of her studies, Bowles confirmed that women are far less likely to initiate salary negotiations than men. But it might have less to do with confidence and more to do with, sadly, just being savvy. According to Bowles

Their reticence is based on an accurate read of the social environment. Women get a nervous feeling about negotiating for higher pay because they are intuitingcorrectlythat self-advocating for higher pay would present a socially difficult situation for themmore so than for men.

Though men can also be seen as unlikeable when they make aggressive demands, it’s only women who suffer for it: people are less inclined to want to work with themeither as coworkers, bosses or subordinates. 

Why such a sucky double standard? Likely because those doing the hiring, or evaluating, of a raise look for different qualities in male and female candidates if the person doing the evaluating realizes this or not. A study from Rutgers reveals that when women are already in the hiring or promotion processand base credentials have been screenedthe evaluation focus shifts away from their actual competence and toward their social skills. You know, because of that girls having to be nice and likable and please everyone all the time thing.

Fortunately, there’s somewhat of a bright spot to all of these findings. Women, apparently, are only penalized when assertively negotiating on behalf of themselves. Women negotiating on behalf of others? Everyone effing loves it. How does this work for those of us who are fed up with this pay wage gap? Use what Sheryl Sandberg refers to as a “think personally, act communally” strategy. That is, when you negotiate, signal why, in your current/aspirational employers’ eyes, it’s legitimate for you to be negotiating (like when Sandberg told the Facebook team in her negotiations “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal team so you want me to be a good negotiator”). Further, use “we” and signal how you want to bring your talents (LeBron James style!) to the benefit of the greater organizationit shows you’re showing support for the whole team. 

Readily conceded: This is pragmatic advice that merely caters to the bullshit patriarchal world in which we live. But as women continue to work every day to slowly shake shit up, we couldn’t just leave you with a totally bleak hodge-podge array of advice that, to look at, really does just make you want to bust into the hokey-pokey . . . for lack of anything else proactive to do.

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