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Gender Pay Gap: Read this the day you find out you’re making less than others and someone suggests it’s your fault.

So, here’s what happens. Colleagues, friends, family, and acquaintances invite me out for coffee and share that they just found out that they were being paid a lower salary than others in their organization – usually men. Several only figured it out more than a year after they had been working there. People, I’ve had a lot of coffee dates lately. We talk, I listen, I share things, and it takes about two hours.

But then a post popped up on MetaFilter: A woman in tech found out she was low-balled when her organization gave her a 25% salary boost, and while her manager said she should be happy about the raise, she feels angry.  In the thread, others suggest some reasons why it might have happened and how to process it – maybe her current boss didn’t know, maybe she didn’t have enough experience, etc.

Since a lot of women I know ask me this question and I didn’t want to out anyone, I thought I would answer her question and have a document to remind myself of the links below. So here’s all the research and advice I know about women, negotiating and being paid less than a male counterpart.

Someone said this beautifully once – I wish I could find the quote –  “If you got paid 75% of what a guy made at your organization, you literally got paid for work from January to September, and then you showed up to work from October to December for free. Before you buy into the whole, “But did you ask for a higher salary? No? Well you did it to yourself then.” noise – allow me to pipe in with an argument for the other side by going through four thoughts women I’ve talked to usually share:

1. Why wasn’t I brave enough to negotiate (better)?

Okay, so it could be true: women don’t ask, according to Linda Babcock’s article and popular book.  Another survey polled women and found that low numbers of women negotiated at all, “only 16 percent of respondents always negotiate compensation when a job offer is made or during performance evaluation….[and] only 15 percent of the respondents strongly believed they are effective negotiators.”

On the other hand, other studies suggest that women ask for raises as often as men do, but get them less often. Another study featured by, showed that “the negotiation gender gap is not as wide as you might think: More than half of the men surveyed (52%) said they accepted the salary they were offered and did not negotiate, compared to 68% of women,” So, some people negotiate, and some don’t. But other than women not feeling they are effective negotiators, why would a woman leave ‘money on the table’?

There are many reasons that women don’t negotiate, even when they need to.  Yes, it could be confidence, or a higher comfort in negotiating when “explicitly stated that wages were negotiable,” but according to Hannah Riley Bowles, “the answer has more to do with how women are treated when they negotiate than it has to do with their general confidence or skills at negotiation.”

In short, the data suggests that many women don’t ask because they correctly determined that they would be viewed as ‘greedy and demanding‘ for asking for a higher salary, and penalized more than a male asking for a similar amount.

Secondly – and I have no data on this, it’s just my experience in speaking with a number of people on both sides of the table – there seem to be two archetypes of managers:

  1. A “Haggler” Manager: Those who expect a candidate to negotiate, so they purposefully low-ball the first offer to account for it, to give the candidate the positive feeling of successfully negotiating. They wouldn’t want the candidate to negotiate without offering being able to offer them something, and assume that the candidate ‘knows the deal’ about the process.
  2. A “Fighting for You” Manager: Those who believe a manager’s job is to fight for the best offer for the candidate, get it, and then tell the candidate that they did so. are the ‘I won’t make you pantomime through a process if you don’t have to.’  These folks take no pleasure in the art of haggling, so they don’t want to ‘insult’ others by making them go through it.

When a Haggler Manager runs into a candidate who expects a Fighting for You Manager – they may be surprised when the candidate doesn’t negotiate at all, and just accepts the offer.  When a Fighting for You Manager offers a job to a candidate who expects a Haggler Manager, they are bewildered when the candidate still tries to negotiate, right after they spent time telling them that they already fought for the best offer.

Conversely, when a candidate who appreciates a Haggler Manager, comes face to face with them, they do feel satisfied by the process. Meanwhile, a candidate who appreciates a Fighting For You Manager and negotiates with one of them, they feel taken care of.

I think it’s helpful for managers to signal strongly throughout the interview with language that open to negotiation or if they intend to make the first offer, the best offer. If you’re a candidate doing research on an organization, it’s helpful to ask “What was the negotiation process like?” when dong informational interviews – to get a sense of what a manager’s style is.

2. Perhaps my lower salary history limited me?

This argument should inspire everyone to try to negotiate, even knowing that they may get static for doing so. Some employers suggest that your lower (current or previous) salary has relevance to what they are going to pay you. After all, why bother to ask you your current salary or have you fill out forms listing your entire salary history if it wasn’t relevant?

Asking for your salary history is a variation of a negotiation tactic called anchoring. You can read more about it here in the Washington Post article, How the ‘what’s your current salary’ question affects the gender pay gap. Basically, anchoring is anything an employer does to peg you to a lower salary.  There could be a number of reasons why you accepted a lower salary – perhaps it was an opportunity to learn something new, or you had geographic limitations The point is, it isn’t relevant to the job that you are currently negotiating for. Your compensation should reflect the job your are about to do.

3. Maybe I was ‘less qualified’ than my male peers?

Imposter syndrome being what it is, almost every woman I’ve talked to secretly wondered if they were paid less because they have less experience than their (male) counterparts.  Perhaps HR was looking at the difference in experience when pay was determined when you got low-balled or denied a raise. Hooey. If the performance expectations for the job you are about to take are the same, the compensation should be the same.

Unless they were going to hold you to a lower performance standard than men (oh, hey, Jane only coded 75% of this correctly/saw 75% of patients/completed 75% of tasks, etc. – good thing we’re only paying her 75% of Bob’s salary) – or were planning to train you up because there was some ability gap – then they expected the same performance expectations for you as your male peers they were paying 25% more, which is why that ‘less experience’ argument is hooey when one looks at performance outcomes.

HR should be acutely attuned to salary ranges as one of their jobs is to protect an organization gender discrimination lawsuits, which I supposed someone figured out as they corrected the issue en masse at the woman’s company.  Because paying men and women different salaries for the same work has been illegal since 1963. Deborah Ashton has some great advice about what HR can do to fix the gender pay gap, if anyone is interested.

4. Perhaps my manager didn’t know I was being paid less?

The desire to believe that your manager wouldn’t “do that to me” is why many women consider the possibility that their manager didn’t know their female staff were being paid less. But managers see salary lines. They know how much everyone they supervise works for. That’s like the #6 thing of 10 things you know when you’re a manager, because nobody who actually has access to salary information fails to look at it. The knowledge in itself is a form of power, and every new manager I know looks to see what everyone makes, and if their people are on parity with staff supervised by other managers.

The very good managers realize that their good staff who are out of sync might find out, get ticked off and leave, which is why the fight for equity reviews, and bonuses and raises. Great managers are pushing and strategizing to get strong employees to parity before she finds out and takes all the institutional knowledge with her. And while I absolutely recognize that some fields a manager is working under some strangling financial limitations, but if they’re really good, s/he’ll signal to you that she knows you’re underpaid, working on it, and try to creatively find ways to keep you happy, even if money isn’t part of the final equation. has 5 ideas here, has 51 possibilities here.  (Okay, a $2,500 pay cut isn’t going to be made up by movie tickets, but wouldn’t you at least feel motivated to keep giving 100% if a manager gave you a little flex time or did at least one of these things a couple of weeks for a year while trying to get your salary up?)

Really, even the acknowledgment that it’s happening, and that a manager is working on it (rather than a manager looking at an employee with a, “But look, my hands are tied!” look), goes a long way.  Really, that just makes a manager look weak (I can’t do it), incompetent (I don’t know how to do it), lazy (I don’t want to do it) or okay with inequity (I won’t do it). In any event – unless a manager is hustling, they are probably losing their employee’s respect as their leader.

Making sure that everyone is taken care of financially is one of the ways that a manager looks out for their team and builds trust. In fact, a Gallup poll said that the definition of a great manager is someone who, “builds relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency,” and suggests that the role of a good manager is someone who makes good employees feel appreciated, heard, and as if someone is “looking out” for them.  It’s hard to feel like a manager considers you a valued member of the team and is looking out for you if they let you walk into a meeting with spinach in your teeth, much less let you get paid 25% than the guy sitting right next to you in the meeting.

So as a woman, how am I disadvantaged when negotiating?

Not only are women who negotiate are viewed unfavorably, but some women get gaslighted at every step of the negotiation process:  In tech, the “data shows that 63 percent of the time women receive lower salary offers than men for the same job at the same company.

The evidence suggests that women get low-balled, get static for asking for more (which is the difference between “Ooh, a 10% increase would be difficult,” and, “10% – Oh, well, let me see what I can do”), and experience long-term consequences including being labelled a witch on day one of your job.  Finally, according to Sheryl Sandberg, apparently women need to ask for money differently than men,  because, ‘I’m asking for this because I deserve this’ seems to only fly if you’re a man.

What does work? To quote Bowles’s work in her research/article Why women don’t negotiate salary offers:

We tested multiple negotiation scripts based on an outside offer— even ones suggesting that the offer just dropped in the employee’s lap. Unfortunately, in all of the outside-offer scripts we tested, the suggestion that the employee would leave if the offer were not matched seemed to undermine the impression that the employee cared about organizational relationships. As a result, evaluators reported being more willing to grant a woman with an outside offer a raise, but they were disinclined to work with her (as compared to if she let the opportunity to negotiate pass). The outside-offer scripts had no significant effects on the evaluation of male negotiators.

The key to a relational account (or “I-We”) strategy is to explain why your counterpart should perceive your negotiating as legitimate in terms that also communicate your concern for organizational relationships.

I should acknowledge that this idea of using “relational accounts” or “I-We” strategies drives some women crazy.

But the poster’s question was, “should you be angry/mad?” I don’t know if that’s the right question. The question is whether you want to work long-term at an organization that was okay with low-balling you to less than that women get 78 cents for every dollar soundbite.   Particularly since the Pew Research Center says the pay gap has reduced to 83 cents in 2015, meaning just 44 days of extra work for women.

Just how bad is it? Wage Gap Data

It seems to be pervasive in every field. To round out the wage inequity issues with the populations I work with at the University of California San Francisco:

“Women don’t cause the wage gap; employers do”

So far I’ve listed a few of the reasons that people give to explain why it’s the woman’s fault that she’s at a lower salary. If you wanted a higher salary, the argument goes:

But What’s notable about this gap is how much time and energy is going into suggesting that it’s actually the woman’s fault that she has a lower salary, or that the solution to the wage gap lies with the woman alone.

It’s hard to imagine that any of those arguments can be made by someone not trying to gaslight you (thank you Vox, for explaining gaslighting).

Over at PBS Newshour,  Nick Corcodilos nailed the problem with this focus on the woman with a report simply titled, Women don’t cause the pay gap. Employers do.  Because this isn’t an individual failure (of women), but a structural one (by the organization and society as a whole).

This is a point missed with articles like Time’s 5 things women can do to close the pay gap, or the section on How can women close the gap? at No mention of men, or culture, or organizational structures, or concepts of unconscious bias, or inertia and the difficulty of culture change having any real role. Just things that women can do. Yes, a woman can pull herself up by her bootstraps, but that gets a lot easier if everybody else would get their boot off of her neck.

When women keep hearing that noise, they get get worn down and tiredI suggest that they ignore the noise and look at the foundation. At the core of it all,  it comes down to your values vs organizational values. When you find out your organization has been paying you less than peers, reflect on your values, consider the following: .

  • If you were a manager, would you have tried to bring all your people in at an equitable salary?
  • If you were a manager, would you regularly check whether or not your staff is being paid, on average, equitably with others in the organization?
  • If you were a manager, and you saw one of your staff was 25% lower for the same performance expectations, would you have tried to correct that immediately?
If you answered “yes”, then you and your organization may have different values, because one of your values isn’t underpaying people just because they didn’t know what the salary range was because most organizations aren’t transparent about salaries

What does it look like? I once had a fantastic manager who hired myself and another woman for one of two openings for an assistant director jobs. He hired her two days before me.  I negotiated my salary; she didn’t. I ultimately negotiated a higher salary; he gave it to me and raised hers to address seniority issues and take care of both of us.  Years later, I seriously light a candle for that man and pray he ends up with the rest of the heroes in Valhalla,  because if someone’s going to take on the responsibility of being a manager, that’s how it’s done.

Is there more bad news than being low-balled/anchored or discouraged from negotiating?

Yes. According to the New York Times,  the wage gap seems to be largely because of motherhood. But what’s really interesting? “The bulk of the pay gap — 73 percent, they found — is from women not getting raises and promotions at the rate of men within companies. Seniority and experience seem to pay off much more for men than for women.” That’s right, you also are less likely to be advanced. This is why sponsorship – not mentorship – is important for all women. One needs to actively push against the downward pressure.

So why can’t I just ‘get over’ being low-balled/anchored, paid less or held back?

If values – like fairness – are important to you, then it’s going to be hard for you to stay in that organization and maintain your productivity and morale, unless you have a very compelling reason to be there (for example, they are sponsoring your visa). Because they’ve shown themselves to be an organization that at some point was okay with paying you less. While SHRM’s (Society for Human Resource Management) title of their article, “Shared Values, The Next Step in Corporate Wellness,” kind of says it all, one of the most important things they say in their section “Empowered, Valued and Supported” is that, “further research suggests that when employees don’t feel valued, they tend to become more stressed and less in control, resulting in emotional exhaustion and an increased desire to leave the company.”

The problem with organizations/managers that betray an employee’s trust is that in every subsequent action either takes, you’re going to wonder if you can trust them. And once trust is gone with your manager, or your organization, it’s pretty much game over. It’s kind of like that Gordon Lightfoot song,  ‘I don’t know where we went wrong but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back‘ sort of a situation. Most people can’t logic their way back into feeling good about giving 100% to an organization that’s okay with giving them (or gave them) 75%.

While I hate when people do this, I really have to repeat that. Most people can’t rationalize their way back into feeling good about giving 100% to an organization that’s okay with giving them (or gave them) 75%.

Few people feel neutral upon finding out that an employer is underpaying them less. You don’t learn that you got paid 25% less and say, “well it’s my own fault – this organization’s taught me a hard but valuable lesson, ”  any more than you’d say, “thank you, mugger, for taking my stuff and teaching me the importance of not leaving my laptop on the cafe table to get some sugar for my coffee.”  Which is why I hear all the perspectives about “women take work too personally,”. but I subscribe to Duncan Combe’s  great article over at Harvard Business Review about why “Don’t take it personally is terrible work advice.

In this case, your organization gets about 5 points for raising women’s salaries going forward to address wage gap issues but loses about 10 for not filling in back pay and for hiring a manager who suggests that you should be grateful, rather than angry.

But, assuming the organization just upped people’s salaries without backpay or apologies, they pretty much figure that they’re going to lose some of their female employees. Because some of them have been there longer than a year – say 5 years – can find one of those online investment calculators and do the math to determine how much that lost 25% for 5 years would amortize at with an 8% return on investment for the next forty years. Because that, plus the anger of feeling that people you see five days a week tried to get one over on you, is really the anger that a person needs to overcome.

In your case, they just trained you for a year and gave you more negotiating power with a leveling up salary boost. So think of it as a residency or a post graduate training that you were probably bound to leave. Because when managers lowball or fail to fairly compensate high performing staff and then suggest in any way that it’s that staff person’s fault for not negotiating – basically the,  “you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate” adage by Charles Karrass – I say, in many cases, they are basically training the future employees of their competitors.

If you can get over your anger, or they’re sponsoring your H1B visa/green card or something, and you like your job, you could stay for a while. But if they have an employee assistance program, I might consider talking with someone about it. It’s because of that ‘nobody feels neutral finding out their underpaid’ thing.

Because there is this other concept, called ‘Equity Theory’, where organizational psychologist Stacy Adams basically posited that people put a high value on ‘fairness’, and the more one feels that they have been treated inequitably/unfairly at work, the more distressed they become about work, often ultimately leaving the organization In fact, has some nice data and infographics showing high percentages of “workers are more likely to leave their jobs if their current employer does little to address gender issues in the workplace.”

But until the Paycheck Fairness Act gets passed, your best option probably includes sending out your resume and seeing what happens.
And since I hate to post anything without leaving something akin to hope, I will say that crosstalk’s suggestion for women and negotiation are standard and true, but incomplete:
  1. Know your value
  2. Predetermine your salary and benefits package
  3. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive
  4. Know when to say when

I say things like this are incomplete because these aren’t really the issues that I’ve seen with women who aren’t negotiating. Because this post is getting way too long – I’ll post some advice that I think works when you are negotiating/asking for a raise based on what I’ve seen in my next post.

photo credit: torbakhopper life as a hundred, scott richard via photopin (license