A new report came out from Bloomberg last week on the topic of negotiation and the gender pay gap. It caught my eye for two reasons: (1) last year I was part of a team that worked on this issue under the direction of gender and negotiation powerhouse, Dr. Linda Babcock (check out “Women Don’t Ask” for a great introduction to the topic), and, (2), shortly afterward, I failed at negotiating my own salary in real life. Less than a month after I spent my entire “Spring Break 2012” holed up in a coffee shop working on our project focused on, once again, the VERY issue of encouraging more women to negotiate, I accepted a summer position at the offered wage without missing a beat. Why didn’t I negotiate? Two main reasons are commonly identified for women not negotiating, the first is that they aren’t aware it’s an option, and the second is that they’re concerned about negatively perceived for doing so. For me it was the latter and I had good reason – a 2006 study found that when women initiate negotiations, both men and women are less likely to want to hire them.
So, due to my academic, and personal, history with gender and negotiation, I was intrigued by the article “Best-Paid Women in S&P 500 Settle for Less Remuneration.” The piece highlights the persistence of the gender wage gap even among a very select and successful group of women – female CEOs. (The wage gap is by no means a problem exclusive to CEOs. On average, American women earn $11,000 less a year then American men. That’s nearly half a million dollars over a lifetime of work and the lost wages are even greater for black and Latina women.) The article targets the negotiation tactics of the businesswomen themselves as a central cause of the average 18% difference between the salaries of top male executives and female executives. While the article made some good points about the very real problem of women negotiating at far lower rates than men, and when they do negotiate, often negotiating for less, sadly it doesn’t say enough about the stereotypes women face when negotiating AND the fact that individual actions are not enough to counteract the systemic inequalities and discrimination that result in lower pay for women.
In a Washington Post WonkBlog response, Jia Lynn Yang takes the Bloomberg piece to task on these issues. Yang argues that the women profiled are living and working in a culture which consistently evaluates them by different standards, not to mention that these particular women are probably pretty strong negotiators to have reached such high corporate positions. Yang identifies a pervasive cultural bias, within men and women, which leads women to be positively viewed for qualities like ability to collaborate while men are praised for standing out and being “brilliant.” Here Yang hits on the overarching issue – it’s not just that women aren’t negotiating like men, but also that even if they do learn to do so, our culture isn’t valuing the same traits in men and in women. “Strong” and “brilliant” might not even be the most successful strategy within the current, often subconscious, social parameters, and the Bloomberg article does acknowledge this issue, stating that a reason why some women aren’t driving a harder bargain is because of the “fear of being labeled overly aggressive and self-centered.” As Yang smartly points out, “a problem this pervasive isn’t going to be solved by women just driving a harder bargain. It’s going to take people at the opposite side of the negotiating table demanding more of themselves, too, examining and testing their own assumptions.” While women can and should increase their negotiation abilities, the wage gap won’t be closed until the unequal valuation of women is changed.