Please Stop Blaming Women For Making Less Money Than Men

No, we're not "bad negotiators."
Andrew Bret Wallis via Getty Images

Despite what you may have heard, women are no worse at negotiating than men.

However, women must do more negotiating than men if they want to get ahead at work. Not simply for pay, but also for the right conditions that will help grow their careers.

The modern day workplace was constructed by men, for men. It’s assumed that men are ambitious and want promotions, that they have the kind of home life that will support long hours at the office and that they don’t need flex time to take care of children. Women are often penalized for ambition or judged for not seeming to pay enough attention to their home lives, as recent research from Erin Reid at Boston University found.

Even the office air conditioning was created with a guy in mind.

That means that if a women wants a promotion, she needs to ask. If a woman wants a different kind of schedule or work arrangement, she must ask. If she wants a role that will lead to the C-suite or the editor-in-chief’s office, she needs to ask. If she wants credit for doing extra work, that’s another negotiation, too. Need a space to pump breastmilk? Negotiate!

Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College who advises many top female executives on their careers, calls these asks small “n” negotiations. And they happen every day in the workplace.


“They are totally tied to your success at work. They are about the jobs you want, the opportunities you get and the support you need,” Kolb, the author of the recent book Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins Into Big Gains, told HuffPost. And women must do more of this asking, Kolb explains, because of the way organizations are structured. "There's nothing associated with our biology that makes us bad negotiators," she says.

There are a lot of well-intentioned people out there who think teaching women to negotiate better can help close the gender pay gap. (Women make 79 cents to every male dollar, and the gap is bigger for women of color.) Indeed, the city of Boston recently launched a new gender pay parity initiative that includes giving free negotiation classes to working women.

But simply blaming women for making less than men -- which is what you’re doing by trying to “teach” them to get better at salary negotiation -- isn’t going to fix this.

Instead, we need to address structural issues with the modern-day workplace that hold women back from getting to pay equality. And these issues have little to do with harmful stereotypes about women’s ability to be as “aggressive” or “confident” as their male counterparts when negotiating for pay.

“Blaming women for making less than men -- which is what you’re doing by trying to “teach” them to get better at salary negotiation -- isn’t going to fix this.”

Kolb notes that women are often placed in less visible or valued roles at work, for which they get less credit and compensation than men. They’re then forced to negotiate for the credit for that work in a way that their male counterparts may not have to do. They also must negotiate to get out of those roles.

In a piece about the way media company Gawker treats its female editors and reporters, Dayna Evans portrays a male-centric workplace that epitomizes the problem. At Gawker, Evans writes, women are doing the "invisible work" while men are getting the big, attention-grabbing bylines.

"'Gawker’s gossip sites often operate off of more or less 'invisible' female management behind the scenes,'" one editor told Evans. "'It’s hard for those women to get recognized for their work, because it’s not on the top of the masthead or on bylines, but they’re the ones pulling the strings each day. Their work isn’t missed until they leave out of frustration or get forced out. It’s a shameful cycle.'"

This isn’t just a Gawker problem.

At law firms, women are more likely to become "nonequity" partners -- where they can expect to make about one-third of what equity partners earn. Female partners are also less likely to get credit for their work, according to reporting from Julie Triedman at The American Lawyer. The same is true for female engineers at tech firms -- they're less likely to get their names on patents for their work, an economist recently told me.

At one manufacturing company, Kolb told HuffPost, women were being consistently hired into the human resource department while men were getting the so-called operational roles at the heart of the business -- the jobs that often pay better and are stepping-stones to the CEO's office. "That meant the women had to negotiate to put themselves forward for the operational roles," Kolb said.

At venture capital firms, men become investment partners -- the critical roles -- while women are shuttled into communications or marketing jobs. Only 6 percent of partners at VC firms are women. At investment banks, male partners work with clients, while the women more frequently get asked to run offices and do internal work -- think human resources -- that isn’t always as valued.

At newspapers, men more frequently cover economics and business, the kind of reporting that lands you on the front page and at the top of the masthead. Women are shuttled into covering personal finance or style -- not a natural path to the editor-in-chief’s office. At Gawker, most of the women work at its feminist website, Jezebel.

As a manager, I've negotiated pay with plenty of men and women. Some men were terrible negotiators; some women were excellent. There was never a clear trend line on gender, in my experience.

Back in Boston, the negotiation classes, which started in October, have women practice asking for raises and promotions, and teach them how to respond to job offers.

That’s not a bad thing -- women should feel confident about asking for more money.

But there’s more to this puzzle than pay. "Certainly you want to get paid fairly if there are inequities in pay," Kolb says. "But to think everything is pay is a problem. You want to negotiate the conditions that are going to make you successful, and the pay will follow."

And if companies and legislators are serious about fixing the pay gap, they’d do well to think about the frequency with which women (and men) need to negotiate their roles.

Google recently conducted an experiment meant to help get more women promoted. The company sent out an email asking women who were interested in promotions to raise their hands if they wanted one. The result: More women asked for promotions. A success -- but was it?

The onus shouldn't always be on employees to engineer their own promotions. It should absolutely be part of a manager's job to spot and promote talented workers before they ask. And those managers should be aware that there is a bias toward promoting men. But for the most part, that's not how it works.

Years ago, I was bored with what I was doing at work and feeling increasingly anxious about how little money I was making. I hadn’t had a meaningful raise in years. I was also pregnant with my second child -- not typically the conditions that signal to your higher-ups you’re in the market for a promotion.

I could’ve asked for more money, but instead I asked for a new job. It was a new role that had just opened up and was probably a bit of a stretch. I figured I’d never get it, but I really needed more money for the second kid. So I raised my hand.

It was a great move. I was respectfully interviewed by some higher-ups -- one who had no idea who I was and another who seemed surprised I wanted a job with more responsibilities. When they told me a little while later that I wasn't ready for the role, they also said it was good that I'd asked for it. The message: Now we know you're ambitious.

I wonder if a man would have needed to give them that kind of reminder.
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