Today is Equal Pay Day, a faux/sad holiday that marks how far into the year a woman has to work, on average, to earn what a man made during the previous year. Because wage disparities are greater for women of color, there are actually a bunch of Equal Pay Days throughout the year: Equal Pay Day for black women, who earn 66 cents on the dollar, is in August; Latina women, who earn just 55 cents on the dollar, don't catch up until early October.
The White House is commemorating Equal Pay Day this year by designating the headquarters of the National Woman's Party as a national monument, but some others choose to mark the occasion by fighting about whether or not the gender wage gap is real or if it's just a massive conspiracy being perpetrated by the Women's Auxiliary of the Illuminati and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And since it is hard to write a popular bestseller on implicit bias among employers, the coercive policies and cultural forces that compel women to shoulder a disproportionate burden of unpaid caregiving labor, or how pay drops when women enter male-dominated fields in greater numbers, a lot of what's out there on bridging the gender pay gap is about women's behavior and attitudes.
The advice may seem straightforward, but the reality is much more complicated. Taken together, it kind of reads like this:
But this tap dance is what's expected of women in the absence of meaningful policy reform that targets employers and institutions. And the confluence of social and structural factors that create and maintain wage disparities between men and women are largely left to women to navigate on their own.
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A 2003 study out of Harvard University found that male MBA graduates received starting salaries that were, on average, $4,000 higher than their female peers. Why? Because 57% of male graduates had negotiated in response to their first offer, compared to just 7% of women.
Other research indicates that women lowball their salary expectations, which can compound the negotiation problem. An employer branding firm called Universum found that the women in MBA programs tended to anticipate a starting salary that was around $7,000 lower than what the men in their programs reported. So while female students thought they'd graduate into a job that paid somewhere around $48,000, male students expected to make about $55,000.
So clearly the conventional wisdom holds here: women benefit when they research their field, anticipate salaries commensurate with what their male peers will be paid, and try to negotiate.
But how women negotiate matters, and is very much constrained by implicit gender bias, according to researchers.
Multiple studies have found that women face negative social consequences, like alienating managers and colleagues, when they demonstrate behaviors that don’t comport with traditional gender norms. So while some of the conventional career wisdom holds that women should get aggressive about salary negotiations, social science has shown that women can be punished for it.
A 2001 study from Stanford University summarized it this way: “Although masculine women are seen as more competent than feminine women, they are also seen as less socially skilled and, consequently, less likable and less likely to be promoted.”
And four studies published by Harvard University in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University found that managers penalized women for initiating salary negotiations more than they did men.
From the study: "[W]omen paid a higher social cost for initiating compensation negotiations than men, but only with male evaluators. Attempting to negotiate for higher compensation had no effect on men’s willingness to work with men, but it had a significantly negative effect on men’s willingness to work with women." (The study also found that women managers penalized women and men equally for attempting to negotiate.)
As Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of the studies, told The New Yorker in 2014, “Women are more reticent to negotiate than men, for good reason."
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None of this means that women shouldn't negotiate, or that these findings are true of every negotiation. It's just that a harder look at the tightrope women must walk to do it just right—not too aggressive, not too passive—reveal the limits of the self-help approach to eradicating pay disparities in the workplace.
But without the kinds of policies and institutional incentives—greater pay transparency, for one—that fight bias on a greater scale, a cottage industry of advice will continue to dominate how we talk about fair wages for women. And women will continue to get shortchanged.
Happy Equal Pay Day, ladies. It's a minefield out there.