Stop Blaming Women for Earning Less Than Men

gender pay gap women earning less than men

“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.”

– Emily Peck

Contrary to popular belief these days, women are not worse than men at negotiating. That is the headline argument of Emily Peck, Executive Business & Technology Editor for The Huffington Post, who recently debunked the standard assumptions in her article “Please Stop Blaming Women For Making Less Money Than Men.”

The real difference, she asserts, is that women need to do more negotiating than men if they want to get ahead at work. Not just for pay and benefits, but also for the work conditions that will allow them to advance professionally.

Today’s workplace was designed by men, for men. It’s assumed that guys are ambitious and will chase after promotions, that they have a supportive home life that will enable them to put in long hours at the office, and that they don’t need flex time for caring for their kids. Women, on the other hand, are commonly penalized for being ambitious, or judged for not neglecting things on the home front, as recent research from Erin Reid at Boston University found.

A recent New York Times piece shows that even the office air conditioning was created with a guy in mind.

This means that if women want a promotion, they have to ask. If they’re seeking a different kind of schedule or flexible work arrangement, they’ve got to ask. If she wants credit for doing extra work, that’s another negotiation, too. Need a space to pump breastmilk? Negotiate! (Urinals for me, of course, have always been widely available in the workplace.)

Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College who represents a number of top female executives in their career paths, describes these as small “n” negotiations. And they happen every day in the workplace.

pay gap

But of course women are burdened with all of this extra asking because of the way business organizations are already structured. “There’s nothing associated with our biology that makes us bad negotiators,” she says.

There are plenty of well-intentioned folks out there who believe that teaching women to negotiate better will close the gender pay gap. (Women make 79 cents to every dollar men pull in, and the gap is bigger for women of color.) The city of Boston even launched a gender pay parity initiative that involved free negotiation classes for working women.

But just blaming women for earning less than men — which is what’s implied in trying to “teach” them to improve their salary negotiation skills – won’t fix the issue.

Rather, we must address structural issues by reforming the modern-day workplace that inhibits advances toward pay equality. And these issues simply aren’t related to the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about women’s inability to be as “aggressive” or “confident” as their male counterparts when negotiating for pay.

Kolb has pointed out that women are frequently put in less visible or under-valued roles at work, where they receive less credit and compensation than male counterparts. This leaves them in a position where they’re forced to negotiate for the credit for that work in ways their male counterparts usually don’t have to do. Not only that, but then they must negotiate to get out of those roles and into better ones.

For example, in a recent piece about how the media company Gawker treats female editors and reporters, Dayna Evans depicts a male-centric workplace that exemplifies the problem. At Gawker, Evans explains, women do most of the vital, “invisible work” while men get 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.'”

But this problem is pervasive beyond Gawker.

At law firms, it’s much more common for women to end up as “nonequity” partners — where they generally earn only one-third of what equity partners make. Female partners are also significantly less likely to get credit for their work, according to studies by Julie Triedman at The American Lawyer. The same things holds for female engineers at technology firms – they don’t often get their names on patents for their work, an economist recently told me.

At one manufacturing company, Kolb told HuffPost, women were overwhelmingly hired into the human resource department while men landed the operational roles at the heart of the business — jobs that generally come with 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 tend to become investment partners — the critical and highly-lucrative roles — while women are funneled into communications or marketing jobs. Shockingly, women make up only 6 percent of partners at VC firms. And at investment banks, male partners tend to interface with clients, while the women are asked to run offices and see to internal work — think human resources — that is generally less flashy and less valued.

And then let’s think about newspapers. Here, men tend to cover economics, politics and business – the beats that land you on the front page and at the top of the masthead. Women end up writing about personal finance or style — not the fast-track to the editor-in-chief’s office. And back to Gawker again: most of the women work at its feminist website, Jezebel.

As a manager, Emily Peck explains that she’s negotiated pay with hundreds of men and women. Some men were terrible negotiators; some women were excellent. There was never a clear trend line on gender, in her experience.

Over the past year, Google ran an experiment aimed at helping more women get promoted. The company issued an email asking any woman who wanted a promotion to raise their hands. The result: More women asked for promotions. On the face of it, then, the exercise seemed like a success — but was it?

Perhaps, as Emily Peck argues, the burden shouldn’t always be on employees to strategize their own promotions. Instead, it should also be part of a manager’s job to identify and promote talented workers before they have to come into their office and grovel. And those managers should also take note of the fact that there is a strong bias toward promoting men. Let’s see how far Google and the other “progressive” workplaces out there are willing to take their stated commitment to gender equality!

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Emery Reddy