It’s commonly assumed—and accepted as fact—that women don’t ask for raises as often as men do and so they don’t get them. Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestseller Lean In told us that (and got a lot of flak for it), as did 2007’s Women Don’t Ask, one of the most heralded books on negotiation, and even a sickeningly titled study out of Harvard in 2003: “Nice Girls Don’t Ask.” Well, new research out of Harvard has totally flipped the script: Women DO ask for salary increases as often as men do, it found. They’re just not getting them.
In 2016, I started Ladies Get Paid, a career development organization for women, that provides workshops, events, and an online network where more than 30,000 women worldwide come together to share advice, resources, job opportunities, and more. It’s essentially a respite from the exhausting and the often demoralizing gender dynamics of the workplace, which are what inspired it in the first place.
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White women make 78 cents to the dollar that men take home, and it’s even worse for women of color: black women get 64 cents—meaning they’ll have to work from last January all the way to this August 7 to catch up to what men took home in 2017—and Hispanic women make a paltry 55 cents on the dollar. And then, perhaps in the patriarchy’s cruelest trick, this discrepancy has largely been blamed on women and our ladylike tendencies to just not ask for what we need or deserve. There is something seriously wrong here, and it goes way beyond women being just fine with whatever we’re given.
According to the study, which was conducted in Australia where employers keep detailed records of employee asking behavior, women who asked for one obtained a raise 15% of the time, while men got their increases 20% of the time. While that may sound like a modest difference, over a lifetime it really adds up.
Previously it’s been thought that women don’t ask for fear of upsetting the relationship with their boss. But the study finds this is equally true of both males and females. One sliver of a silver lining (aside from the vindication of science confirming what women have known all along), is that the difference is shrinking—the study authors wrote that women and men in the youngest age group were “statistically indistinguishable.” So someone’s getting it right.
This new study only focuses on people asking for raises at their current jobs, but at Ladies Get Paid, we’ve found that our members often fear negotiating when it comes to a new job. Surely those 85%-of-the-time “no” conversations contribute to that. If you’ve been told no, and you leave your job seeking a better opportunity (which is common among women in their 30s precisely because of lack of pay), not only are you starting with a blank slate and having to prove yourself all over again, you’re doing so with a bruised ego that’s already been shot down, maybe even repeatedly.
And this is where some of the prior research still feels valid. Young girls have long been socialized to not disrupt, brag, or push back in the first place, which can follow us into adulthood and the workplace. Some may worry about harming the relationship with their manager by expecting more (which we now know men do, too); others may fear a quid-pro-quo arrangement would come out of them asking for it. The slow build of our salaries doesn’t happen in a vacuum—the larger culture around women at work has a lot to do with it. And likewise, successfully getting a raise doesn’t happen because of the meeting in which you ask for it; it’s often the belated reward for stepping up, claiming credit for your successes, and advocating for yourself repeatedly and consistently throughout the year. Those old standards of a virtuously quiet woman do not serve us—especially not at work.
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Millennial women know that, because they were told growing up that they could do anything the boys did—and in large part they have. Women now outnumber men at institutions of higher learning. We’re earning more PhD’s. We’ve got our eyes on the C-suites, political seats, and entire industries that have historically kept us out. We understand that money opens a lot of doors, and we believe we should get it. We are asking—as the Harvard study finds—and, still, we are being shot down.
So, then what? Here are three paycheck roadblocks—and what you can do when you slam into them.
Fear of Self-Promoting
Women may be asking for more money but perhaps not making as strong of a case as they could. During the negotiation itself and throughout the year, we may use passive language (starting emails with “I’m sorry” and using qualifiers like “just” and “actually”) and don’t take as much credit for our work as we should. We fall victim to the mistaken belief that if we keep our heads down and work hard, we will be recognized. I see this all the time with women who come to Ladies Get Paid wanting to learn to advocate for themselves, to tell the story of their wins so they can get the recognition and rewards they deserve.
What you can do:
Make sure you’re advocating for yourself throughout the whole year, not just when review time rolls around. Schedule consistent meetings with your manager to check on your growth and make sure you’re exceeding expectations, and always have new ones to work toward. Understand what their priorities are and what they need to see from you before you’ll be rewarded with a raise or promotion (hopefully both!). Find out how you impact the business at large so you can quantify your value with hard numbers. Keep track of your accomplishments as well as positive feedback you receive, from your direct manager or others throughout the organization, so you can reference it when you ask for a raise.
When it’s time to talk about your wins, think beyond the obvious. What obstacles did you overcome? Did you save money for the company? Did you improve the team dynamic? Create an organizational process? To tell a compelling story about what you did, follow the STAR method: Set the scene; what was the Task; what Action did you take; and what was the Result. If you’re feeling awkward talking about yourself, pretend you’re describing a scene in a movie and you’re the main character. Things usually work out for them.
Lack of Sponsors
For all the talk of mentorship these days, it is sponsors we should be seeking. These are influential people who advocate for us when we’re not in the room. For example, someone who brings you up as a potential leader in a meeting full of executives. (While a mentor might give you advice over coffee about how to advocate for yourself.) Unfortunately, men still hold the majority of leadership positions and the fact of the matter is, they’re more likely to feel close to someone who reminds them of themselves. So guess whose names are being brought up in those meetings?
What you can do:
Suggest implementing a program at your company that facilitates connections between high powered employees and more junior ones. According to the Center for American Progress, less than 22% of women make it past middle management. If you’ve got eyes on stepping up, meet a leader you admire and get on their radar. Do something that makes their job easier; then follow that up by asking them to coffee or lunch to learn about how they got where they are. If they aren’t looking out for you, you’ve got to jump from the periphery into their clear view. While there, you could suggest upper management look into wage transparency, or reach even farther and lobby your local legislator to pass the salary history ban, which makes it illegal for companies to ask prospective candidates how much they made at their last job (which specifically disadvantages women and people of color who are underpaid). Some good news: It has already been enacted in nine states.
It’s all about making a clear argument, and backing it up. Sponsorship programs are linked to improved employee satisfaction, which leads to retention which leads to money saved. And if you’re saving your company money, there’s a clear case for them to kick a little extra back to you.
Plain Ol’ Sexism
Newsflash: this still exists. It’s entrenched, it’s insidious, and it will take a long time and a lot of work before it stops impacting our daily lives.
What you can do:
Suggest unconscious bias training at work. This will benefit not only women’s bottom lines, but people of color, people with illnesses or disabilities; any marginalized group of people who are treated unfairly at work. Again, data shows these investments pay off. But if your company won’t spring for formal training, you can do it ad-hoc, by just elevating women whenever you can—try saying, “Ashley had a great idea earlier…” and give props to a coworker in the middle of a big meeting. Ann Friedman called this “Shine Theory” back in 2013—if you’re getting any shine, reflect it onto the women around you. If you’re a woman in leadership, it’s crucial you advocate for other women. Are you on your way up? Bring them with you. Instead of competing with the other women in the room, share the wealth, so to speak.
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These changes are slow-moving. They likely won’t get you a same-day salary increase (if only). But the impact will be felt way beyond yourself—and that’s the kind of win that’s raise-worthy.
Claire Wasserman is the founder of Ladies Get Paid, a career development platform for women. For the past year, Claire has traveled the country hosting town halls for thousands of women to talk about money, work, and self-worth. She is currently writing a book about her experience.
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