Gender Wage Gap Points to Broader Negotiation Disparities

When the Equal Pay Act of 1963 became law, President John F. Kennedy declared the end of the "unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job." Yet, in 2014, when women across the United States earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar men earn, the U.S. Senate blocked consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it illegal for employers to penalize employees who discuss their salaries.

Why is salary transparency so important to some and so frightening to others?

Why wouldn't everyone, both men and women, want to know what people earn in the workplace? Why does our society tolerate draconian measures that keep salary information a secret?

It's clear that, without good information, many workers, women in particular, simply don't know what they are worth in the workplace. Yet, research shows that men lacking good information about salary will ask for it, while women won't. And if women don't ask, they don't receive. Are they at fault? No, because there is more to the picture.

Women who do ask for a higher salary often face a "double bind" -- they can be perceived as either competent or likable, but not both. Women can be penalized for asking, because that action violates the cultural norm of women being "nice" and "accommodating." A woman who asks is often considered aggressive and unlikeable, and does not get the raise or the job, while her male counterpart, doing exactly the same thing, is rewarded. This largely unconscious bias, held by both men and women, inhibits women's agency in the workplace.

Fortunately, women are learning how to negotiate effectively in today's workplace. Negotiation is a required course at many business schools, and women often excel in collaborative, mutual-gains negotiations. For women who know how to negotiate, it does pay to ask. Women who achieve leadership success do so in part because they know what they want and are able to negotiate effectively to get it.

Many academic studies and popular press stories about gender and negotiation have focused on whether or not, and how effectively, women negotiate for higher pay. Compensation negotiation has become a focal point for academic research, perhaps because pay is a measurable indicator that researchers can easily analyze. Another attraction to studying compensation is that it is a standard subject of discussion in formal job negotiations.

Yet, the wage gap is a symptom of wider gender disparity in the workplace, and there are other important forms of career negotiation. Indeed, how a woman negotiates her career path is arguably a more important determinant of lifetime earnings (via factors such as choice of occupation, promotions, years in the work force, hours per week worked) than pay negotiation at organizational entry and promotion points. Thus, if we want to understand the gender disparity in career trajectories, we need to look beyond compensation to see how women and men negotiate their careers.

Our research at the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons School of Management shows that, regardless of their age group, years of work experience, or level of leadership attained, women can benefit from training to become better negotiators, so that they can both increase their earning potential and achieve career success.

But, that is only part of the picture. Employers need to be aware of the many barriers to success that face women in the workplace. Organizations need to truly believe that diversity in the workplace brings added value to all, not only to women and minorities. Research has amply documented that a well-managed, diverse, workforce is both good for the bottom line and a key component of sustainable, organizational success.

Equal pay for equal work is an important place to start. It's time to end the "unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job."