A male entrepreneur recently said to me, "I don't believe that women make $.77 on the dollar." My initial response was to ask if he believed in gravity, in the hope of illustrating to him that the existence of anything is not contingent on his belief in it. After an eye roll and some awkward silence, he went on to explain that he would never pay a woman less than a man. Upon further investigation, a number of men in business confirmed that they don't believe the wage gap could happen at their companies because it's not something that they would do.
Not intentionally. But math doesn't lie. So what are they (and you) not considering?
We Play Nice
As children, women are taught to listen, raise their hands, wait their turn, and work hard. Girls are praised for being nice, quiet, and still. At first, these expectations benefit girls, creating better behavior. The short-term results are higher grades and higher college enrollment rates for women. Yet, despite this initial success, women leave school feeling less confident than boys. Why?
The different social norms between the genders teach girls subservient habits, while expecting boys to exercise dominance. Interrupting others, demonstrating aggression, and speaking out of turn are perceived as normal "boys will be boys" behaviors. Yet a little girl who displays those same traits will be labeled as bossy, pushy, and impolite. Teachers engage in a discussion with boys more often when they speak out of turn. A girl who does the same is reminded to raise her hand. Parents also hold their daughters to a stricter level of politeness, reprimanding their behavior twice as often as their sons.
This politeness translates into lower pay because women feel disempowered from a young age when they do assert themselves. Deviation from these societal norms comes with consequences. Being assertive, confident, and vocal will label women as difficult, argumentative, and disagreeable at work. At the same time, these qualities will reward men with a higher income.
We Don't Negotiate
According to a 2008 study, men perceived negotiations as "winning a ball game" while women associated the act with "going to the dentist." More than twice as many women than men said they felt "a great deal of apprehension" about negotiating. But more than apprehension, women are aware that there is a social cost to advocating for themselves which is not present for men.
Because women are expected to be self-sacrificing rather than self-serving, the act of negotiating one's salary flies in the face of this gender norm. And when women do ask for more money, we are subject to "gender blowback." Managers who hired women thought less of them once the same women engaged in salary negotiations. The same was not true of men. Women who negotiate are considered demanding, pushy, bossy - and were even shamed - when advocating for higher pay.
Another piece to the negotiation paradigm is that women believe employers when they say there is no room to negotiate salary or that the company cannot afford additional compensation. Women don't play the "mine's bigger than yours" game, and if they do it's painful, not fun (note: dentist). As mentioned, female social standards promote politeness and submission. Therefore, we are quick to settle for an initial offer, or to accept "no" rather than engage in a robust debate.
The twist to the paradigm is that women are admired when they negotiate for others. And women feel more comfortable when they negotiate for others than when advocating for themselves. Think of a mama bear who will go hungry so that her cubs can eat, and who will defend those little ones to the death. Women do this for their companies and employees. It's valuable. But the value goes unrecognized.
We Don't Brag
Women downplay their accomplishments and minimize the impact of their work. We don't brag, and therefore, our many contributions go unnoticed because we do not announce them.
Consider when my husband and I went to marital counseling. I felt unappreciated and unrecognized for my contributions around the house. The counselor suggested that I announce my contributions to my husband each time I did laundry or cleaned the bathroom. My response: "I could never do that."
As a woman, not only was it against my nature to brag, but I did not stop to reflect on what I had accomplished because I had to move onto the next task. Women have defused awareness, meaning we are simultaneously aware of everything in our environment. We move from task to task, focusing on what needs to be done because we are constantly aware of everything that must be resolved. Watch a group of women prepare for an event. We spot and kill tasks, almost without words. The additional white matter and a thicker corpus callosum in the female brain create this spidey-sense in women. We continue resolving issues without explanation because what needs to be done is obvious from our vantage point.
Because men are linear thinkers, meaning they tackle one task at a time, they do not issue spot with the same awareness. If you send a man out for milk, he will bring home the milk, set it on the counter, and announce, "I brought the milk!" If you send a woman out for milk, she will also pick up toilet paper and cat litter, and casually mention that she noticed you were out while she puts away the groceries. That's the difference between diffused and linear awareness.
Because 78% of executives are men, they do not realize that female employees quietly took care of multiple issues before they morphed into problems. And what goes unrecognized also goes unrewarded.
So What's the Answer?
A quick search will yield multiple articles discussing how women need to discuss their success and learn to negotiate. The problem with these recommendations is that they look to masculinize women. The truth is we don't live in a gender neutral society. We have two genders, and females are expected to conform to masculine norms. But with a lifetime of social conditioning to the contrary, you might as well ask them to become howler monkeys. It won't happen.
While it is possible to recognize the gender double standard and do better with the next generation, that does not solve the problem of pay inequality today. It's a problem that women cannot solve alone. When I say "$.77" and you say, "I don't believe you," the message is disrespectful, dismissive, and ignorant because it only accounts for your own perception. And in the end, it's self-sabotaging: women don't live in bubbles (or binders), and the wage gap hurts families as a whole - families that include men.
Another problem with the "learn to negotiate and brag" approach is that it blames the victim. The language of wage disparity and what to do about it is analogous to blaming a sexual assault victim: What was she wearing? Was she drinking? These questions place responsibility for the crime on the target. The bottom line is that women are paid less when management decides to pay women less.
What to do? Switching to a candid rather than a confidential discussion about salaries is the first step. The secrecy around money is part of the reason the wage gap persists. In addition, women need advocates in leadership positions. An excellent example of the "not on my watch" attitude necessary can be found with Salesforce, and it's CEO Marc Benioff. Although skeptical when female employees initially raised the wage discrepancy, Benioff ordered a review of all 17,000 employees' salaries. The review was warranted. Women did make less. Salesforce has made adjustments and now pays women the same as men.
Lesson: if you believe you wouldn't pay a woman less, then don't. And understand the depth of the problem goes beyond your initial perception.